On the Central Importance of Chi

By Dr. David Walls-Kaufman
July 6, 2010

In my very early days studying tai chi with my first teacher Bob Smith, author of the book, Masters and Methods, there was no doubt in our school that chi existed and was the centerpiece of tai chi. Smith had a line in the above-referenced book about how practicing with his teacher, Professor Cheng Man-ching, left one with absolutely no doubt that chi was a real thing.

I fear now that, for most of the tai chi world, chi is thought to be a mythical thing from China’s weird past.
For example, over the past few years reading the posts in a Cheng Man-ching style list-serve, mentions of chi were outright laughed at by all of the outspoken subscribers on the list.

It seemed I was the only defender of the idea that chi is real. The only support I ever saw was from folks contacting me backchannel. One other poster, Cheng Man-ching student Bill Phillips, had a concrete observation that chi was totally real. He said something to the effect that, “When I first started practicing tai chi, I felt no chi. Now, after over twenty-five years practice, I feel chi.”

The sense I derive from tai chi practitioners and researchers is that they regard the idea of chi with embarrassed confusion.

It seems, to the large majority of tai chi practitioners, that “internal power” is a matter of body mechanics and alignment. Some clearly think of chi as states of mind like confidence before a fight or martial spirit or ferocity or focusing all of one’s physical reserves on a strike, kick, push, neutralization.

The idea seems to have been all but lost that chi is a bona fide alternate energy source inside human beings.

This, my friends, is a crying shame.
This means that tai chi is lost. It means that tai chi has been largely reduced to a kind of slow-motion dance; a form of geriatric therapy that helps seniors hold on to their hip sockets, balance and bone density for a few years longer.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that . . . .
But if this trend concretizes, then you and I are losing the most brilliant form of bodymind exploration that exists. The world is losing what I like to call the Calisthenics of Enlightenment. We are witnessing the quiet death of the most potent martial art known to humankind.

And the tragic loss is based entirely on the fact that so few of us “believe” in the chi because we have so little functional knowledge of it.

Without genuine chi, there is nothing exceptional or particularly interesting about this exercise. It is slow-motion modern dance.

The difficulty is that a real and important cultivation of chi in the practitioner is probably the hardest thing to achieve in the field of physical culture. I say it’s probably the hardest based on the fact that it’s indisputably the coolest. And it makes sense to me that, in this world that lets us glimpse now and then that it at its core it is based on Meritocracy, then that which is the coolest and most valuable thing comes at the highest price of patience and self discipline.

Another of Professor Cheng’s great students (and the greatest tai chi teacher I have ever met) is Maggie Newman. She said it so eloquently that, “So much of what we talk about in tai chi, ‘the soft overcoming the hard’, ‘four ounces moving a thousand pounds’, ‘the chi’—it seems like a fantasy.”

And that is precisely the reality, and the central problem, for so many tai chi practitioners.

The chi is so elusive and hard to come by without the right practice that it can remain a fantasy even after a number of years. And after some years without ever having experienced an important level of it to have access to—students give up and figure the “internal” must all be in the mechanics and alignment of the body, or the practitioner being “confident and relaxed” in a tense situation.

Or far worse—they have a “teacher” who should be pushing a broom in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant rather than rooking gullible Americans out of their beer money. And so, their teacher has nothing to show them of importance, and all that’s really there for the gullible American is some mongrel mysticism that delivers the same authenticity as a fortune cookie Lucky Number.

My friends, I want to try to restore your faith.

I want us to take tai chi back from the well-meaning physical therapists that are concerned about our parents’ bone density but are rapidly diminishing the most exceptional method of mental and physical culture that exists by their very efforts to popularize the most superficial component of tai chi practice—it’s slow-motion postures. And the physical therapists are diminishing tai chi when their writings focus our attention on the benefits for health and balance and away from the only thing that makes tai chi important in your life—the location and cultivation of your own chi.

The double tragedy of the physical therapists’ unknowing misdirection is that the cultivation of significant chi (which is attainable by anyone) leads to health and thriving gains that dwarf those obtained by slow-motion modern dance.

I realized how dire the tai chi situation is when I recently attended a workshop of an internationally known tai chi master. I had always wondered why this certain teacher (in my opinion) under-emphasized the role of chi and talked of alignment, postural mechanics, physical training in conjunction with tai chi, etc.

I made a special effort to attend this workshop because one of the questions I wanted to ask him was Why did he under-emphasize chi? I never asked him. I realized halfway through the workshop the reason he emphasized mechanics was because he, too, didn’t have enough chi in his own belly to convince him that the mechanics were a relatively insignificant factor.

To realize this about a famous master is a wake-up-call that makes you want to write some articles about tai chi and the central importance of chi. Because there is only one reason that you practice tai chi. There is only one thing that the form, the practice, the discipline, the training tools of tai chi are designed to do. Whatever you want out of tai chi, be it enlightenment, health, martial study, the cultivation of your chi stands between you and the highest achievement of those goals.

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2 Responses to “On the Central Importance of Chi”

  1. matt Says:

    I have never doubted the existence of chi. My first Tai chi teacher taught us, chi can only be studied in the ‘here and now’ , that you cannot forcefully ‘create’ chi, and that everything you do requires chi. He taught a combination of TCM diet therapy, meditation, qigong, and Tai Chi so the student would understand and nourish the Chi energy.

  2. Daniel Pfister Says:

    I think this is a good, thought-provoking post; and it ought to generate some discussion. I agree with what seems to be your central premise; namely that you must have a belief in “chi” in order to advance in many levels of Tai Chi. As to the ultimate existence of chi, that is another matter and a much longer conversation. When asked questions about chi, Mr. Liu would often say that the chi will follow the mind if the body is relaxed; so as long as you keep your mind in your Dan Tien the chi will also be there automatically.

    My understanding of chi comes from Mr. Liu’s teaching, knowledge of the Chinese language, and my own personal experience and feeling. I do believe one of the meanings of chi has the notion of an “alternate energy source inside human beings” as David put it. I agree with this definition as long as we are careful not to equate that meaning with something which might be construed as a quasi psychic/telekinetic or magical power. That definition goes too far for me, and is perhaps counter-productive as people cannot clearly define what it is they are practicing. As the Tai Chi classics say, going off track a little can lead one far astray.

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