Can Taiji Be of General Appeal to Youths?

Can Taiji be of general appeal to youths?  Taiji is widely accepted as an excellent exercise that is good for health.  It is practiced by millions of people all over the world, including in the U.S.  Because of its low impact on the body and one doesn’t necessarily have to be in good physical health to practice it, Taiji is especially welcomed by senior citizens.  But can it appeal to youths?  We present arguments that the answer is affirmative if we position and teach Taiji in suitable ways.

Even though good health should also be of great interest to youths, we know that in general health is not a topic high on the priority of youths.  Rightly or wrongly, youths take their health for granted.  They just assume that they will have good health and they will live a long life.  However, youths (both boys and girls) are interested in self-defense.  Self-defense has practical value, and it is something fun and exciting to do.  Taiji was invented as a martial art.  That is why Taiji is often referred to as Taijiquan, or the Fist of Taiji.  For several hundred years, it was practiced in China to protect one’s family and village against thieves,  robbers, and outside invaders.  It was part of the skills learned by many professional bodyguards who provided physical protection for both travelers and goods in transit during the days when people traveled by foot and goods were carried on one’s back, horses, or horse-drawn carriages.  Therefore, traditionally Taiji was taught as both a martial art and a good exercise for health.  It was only during the last 50 years or so,  especially after the opening of China with all the media coverage associated with the Nixon visit to China, that Taiji has become synonymous with a health exercise, especially for older people.

Whenever we teach Taiji to youths, we should always illustrate the martial applications of each of the forms that we are teaching.  There are two reasons for doing this.  One is that the students will have a better understanding of the origin of the forms and the reasons for doing that form.  The second reason is that seeing the martial applications of the form allows the students to understand better the correct way to do a particular form.  They will have a better understanding of the underlying techniques and philosophy of Taiji.  For example, why waist rotation is important, why we take “cat steps” where we step down on the heels first, why relaxation is so critical in Taiji, how four ounces can deflect a thousand pounds.   This is not to say that in an introductory Taiji class, the emphasis should be on martial applications. What we are saying is that even in an introductory Taiji class the instructor should illustrate to the students how the various forms can be used in self-defense.  To actually learn and practice the self-defense techniques should be left for a follow-on Taiji course.  I can speak from personal experience that no matter the age of my students, ranging from teenagers, college students, to senior citizens, including people in the 80s, illustrating the martial applications of the Taiji forms can help to generate more interest in the course and help the students to do the forms more correctly.  And if the Taiji course is for youths, then illustrating the martial applications of the Taiji forms will be even more critically important. For an illustrated discussion of the martial applications of Taiji, see the article “Martial Applications of Taijiquan” in an earlier issue of this website: http://www.dontow.com/2008/12/martial-applications-of-taijiquan/.

The above conclusion is independent of the Taiji style that we teach.  Whether it is the Chen, Yang, Sun, Wu, or some other style, we should always illustrate the martial applications of the  forms that we teach.  Speaking of different Taiji styles, I do have a preference for a style to teach to youths in a first course on Taiji.  I prefer the Chen style.  The Chen style combines a mixture of slow and fast movements, and a mixture of soft and hard movements.  Comparing this with the most practiced style in the world, the Yang style, whose movements are essentially all slow and soft, I think the Chen style will be more appealing as a first Taiji course to youths.  However, in subsequent courses, the Yang and other styles can be just as appealing to youths.  I want to add that relatively speaking, it is more important to incorporate in the course the illustration of the martial applications of the forms than which particular style is chosen to be taught in the first Taiji course.

What about the form set to choose for a first course on Taiji?  Independent of the Taiji style, I think it is important to choose a reasonably short form set that can be learned in a matter of a few months even if the class meets only once per week for one hour. [1]  For example, for the Chen style, I would choose the Hunyuan 24 Form [2], which I call the Simplified Chen Style 24 Form.  I think choosing the traditional Chen Style First Form with 83 forms would be too long and complicated to teach in a first course.  Even the Chen Style Competition Form with 56 forms would be too long and complicated for a first course.  Similarly, for the Yang style, the Simplified Yang Style 24 Form would be a suitable candidate for a first course.  Teaching the traditional Yang Style long form of 108 forms is way too long and complicated for a first course.  Even the Cheng Man Ching 37 Form that is based on the Yang Style is too long and complicated for a first course.  The mixed style 42 Form is also too long and complicated for a first course, although it can be an ideal candidate for one of the subsequent courses.

During the first Taiji course, the instructor should also mention other aspects of the art of Taijiquan.  Besides illustrating the martial applications, the instructor should also mention:

  • Push Hands:  A set of two-person exercises that utilize and practice the martial applications of Taiji
  • Qin Na:  A set of grappling  techniques that control or lock an opponent’s arms, legs, joints or muscles/tendons so he cannot move, thus neutralizing the opponent’s fighting ability
  • Qigong:  A set of breathing, physical, and mental exercises to control and circulate the Qi (or internal energy) within the body to cure illnesses and increase martial prowess. [3]

Each one of these techniques can help to generate among the youths additional interest and excitement on Taiji.  They see that the art of Taiji is more than just a set of slow and soft movements for senior citizens to do, but a sophisticated art that challenges the body and mind, and is good for self defense and health.  At the same time, it is also something that is fun, interesting, exciting, and challenging to learn and to practice.  The introductory course is just the first of a set of courses on Taiji.

Summary: Taiji is generally known as a good health exercise for senior citizens.  Its focus in recent times, especially in the West, has been mostly on older adults.  In this article, we remind people that as in the origin of Taiji, it is also a good self-defense art.  If the introductory course can illustrate the martial applications of Taiji, as well as touching upon other related subjects such as Push Hands, Qin Na, and Qigong, then Taiji can have general appeal to youths.  In addition, if we choose properly the Taiji style and the specific form set to be taught in an introductory Taiji course, then even youths will find Taiji to be fun and exciting to learn and to practice.  One of the reasons that some of the instructors of Taiji courses, especially those taught in the U.S., do not illustrate the martial applications of Taiji, is because they themselves had never learned Taiji as a martial art.

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[1] How fast s group of students can learn a particular form set depends of course on the age of the students.  A class of college-aged students can of course learn it much faster (and also better) than a class of senior citizens.

[2] The Hunyuan Chen Style was developed by Grandmaster Feng Zhejiang.

[3] For an introduction to Qigong and a modern analysis of Qigong, see the article “Modern Scientific Analysis of Medical Qigong”:  http://www.dontow.com/2010/08/modern-scientific-analysis-of-medical-qigong/.

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