Cheng Man-Ch’ing stated that to attempt to discuss Tai Chi without reference to Yin, Yang and the Five Elements (Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water) is like discussing mathematics without mentioning arithmetic or algebra. By which I presume he meant that it was pointless.
This can be off-putting to people of a Western mindset who have not been schooled in the fundamentals of Chinese philosophy. Does this mean that such people cannot benefit from Tai Chi? Of course not!
In their excellent book ‘Tai Chi for Every Body’, Eva and Karel Koskuba explain fundamentals of Tai Chi in terms recognisable to, but likely unfamiliar to, modern westerners.
Here is my summary…
Tonic and Phasic Muscles
We have two types of muscles, Tonic and Phasic.
Tonic muscles support our posture, stabilising us against the pull of gravity. They are not under conscious control. Their use is effortless. These muscles are always working. They also control our breathing, digestion, and blood circulation.
Phasic muscles are used to move, we can relax and contract them at will. Such use requires effort. Deliberate motions such as lifting your leg, closing your hand or turning your head all primarily use phasic muscles.
Chi and Tonic and Phasic Muscles
In Tai Chi training we are encouraged to cultivate our chi to achieve the ideal of effortless action (wu wei). We are told that relaxation is the key to cultivating the chi.
The Koskubas interpret this as an instruction to relax all the muscles that are within our conscious control (Phasic) and allow the postural (Tonic) muscles to do their job, making constant, subconscious adjustments to keep us standing erect despite gravity’s constant pull, the wind and any other forces that may be acting on us.
In order to let the tonic muscles do their job, we must have proper posture. This is not the normal state of the typical western adult, in which improper posture has to be compensated for by active use of the Phasic muscles.
Try for yourself
Now you know the theory, try to stand upright for as long as you can, with proper posture (head balanced, neck relaxed, upper body balanced on top of hips, whole body balanced on top of feet and ankles).
If your posture was correct and your phasic muscles were relaxed you could maintain this position indefinitely, using no more effort than is required to keep your heart beating.
Unless you have perfect posture and complete relaxation you will not be able to stand upright indefinitely. You will be able to identify the phasic muscles that you are using to compensate – they are the ones that hurt!
By standing and attempting to relax, while making adjustments to your posture you will be able to stand for longer without experiencing pain**. This means that your posture is improving.
* Note that I am not dismissing Chinese philosophy as mumbo jumbo – merely noting that to those unschooled in its concepts it may as well be mumbo jumbo.
** Cheng Man-Ch’ing was once asked by a student when his legs would stop hurting. The professor replied that when his legs stop hurting he would have stopped improving. In other words, when he had attained perfect posture.