Tai Chi Chuan: The Mobility of Grounding
Tai chi chuan is a martial art that came of age in the eighteenth century. It incorporates almost all of the Hindu and Chinese knowledge and understanding that I mentioned earlier. Its current form dates from the middle of the nineteenth century.44 This martial art developed a version that is so slow that it makes it possible to differentiate every articulation of every part of the body for a movement that is then executed as fast as lightning. I want to speak about this unending adagio. Millions of students, in China and in the rest of the world, practice this gymnastics. It is related to chi-kong, composed of a few movements that are associated more specifically to health problems and to mobilizations of the meridians. There are numerous manuals and websites that explicitly detail the existence of a link between gesture, the circulation of chi in the meridians, respiration, and the particular work of the joints and of mental images.
Many tai chi chuan manuals describe a series of standardized postures that can be drawn or photographed. Learning the form of these postures is a first part of this discipline’s apprenticeship. In some manuals, the position of the feet and the placement of the body’s weight on each foot are specified. The weight of the body can be divided equally on both feet, in a position (the chi shih) that will be, with a few differences, also a position of reference in bioenergetic analysis (grounding); or the weight of the body can be distributed all on one foot and on the tip of the other, like in the grasping the sparrow’s tail (lan chiao wei).45 Each of these postures is the most clearly defined part of a movement that has a beginning and an end and is to be carried out in a particular mindset. The spirit of a movement that situates a posture in between two others defines itself according to a number of criteria. For example:
1. A movement has a function in combat. Movement must be carried out according to its function.
2. A movement is established from the bottom up. The feet must be placed where they belong, the weight well distributed. The action is supported by a position of the feet that allows one to position the pelvis in a relevant way. The position of the pelvis serves as a foundation to establish the position of the trunk, the arms, and the head. If this construction is appropriate, the neurological coordination of these elements creates a unified action that coordinates the dynamics of the gaze and of the fingers in a relevant way.46
When a person takes the chi shih position, he checks that his feet are exactly parallel, equidistant, and even with the width of the shoulders. The knees are unlocked, slightly bent. The arms are relaxed alongside the body. Then slowly, the individual lifts the wrists forward up to the height of the shoulders, the arms remaining parallel, the elbows pulled downwardâ (Despeux, 1981, p. 143; translated by Marcel Duclos). When an individual is relaxed, this movement inevitably engages a slight flexing of the knees. The arm rises during an inbreath, and the eyes follow the wrists.
If you try to make this gesture, you will see that to coordinate the movements of the arms with breathing is a task that requires an apprenticeship. To do that in coordination with one’s breath is one
thing; but to let the knees flex is yet another! A central notion of tai chi chuan is that when a movement is executed correctly, movement and consciousness follow the laws of biomechanics47 and the circulation of the chi. Consciousness has learned to follow movements that are in harmony with the properties of the organism
Like the dots of a line, these postures first insert themselves into a series of movements and finish by becoming one long movement where all of the dimensions of the organism move in harmony with each other. The movements are defined by an empirical study of what transitions are the most economical (in terms of physical effort) and the most effective (in terms of combat) to go from one posture to another. The fighter must, for example, deflect a blow, then another, and attack. The sequence from one posture to another follows the rules of the I Ching on the manner in which a structure (or hexagram) transforms itself into another: how to pass from one position of the feet to another, how to change the distribution of the weight on the feet, how to rebuild the position of the pelvis that will sustain a new action (to block a punch and then give one). Only after years of practice can each position and each transition be in such alignment that an observer can have the impression of a continuous, fluid, and harmonious motion that lasts for twenty minutes. Yoga had already worked on how to go from an asana to another. However, the coordination between posture and movement proposed by tai chi chuan is, for me, one of the seven marvels of our present world.