Tai Chi Training for Middle-Aged Martial Artists Who Refuse to Quit

On our walk down the martial path, we will find that we cannot rely on our martial arts training as we did when we were younger. That head-high kick gets harder and harder to deliver effectively. The power in that once-awesome reverse punch seems to slip, regardless of how much time we invest in practice. Such decreases in physical agility, whether because of injuries or the aging process, will eventually force us to adjust our workout routines. How do we, as lifelong martial artists, deal with this?

When faced with diminishing speed, power and strength, many people cease training altogether. Others seek out alternative methods. Note that use of the word “alternative” confers no hint of settling for second best even though many people enter this phase in their journey with exactly that feeling. The fact is, these alternatives often prove superior to the way we did things before. That’s because the methods we followed in our early days were, relatively speaking, simpler and easier to assimilate—which is precisely why they are taught first.

Lacking the depth of experience that comes only with time, beginners are capable of digesting only small amounts of all that the martial arts have to offer. Still, even at that early level, we enjoy what we learn, develop skill in it and perfect that skill to the best of our ability. However, because everyone else in our peer group is practicing and playing with basically the same tools, there is little incentive to try anything else. Enter injury and aging. Although viewed as rusty, jagged edges of the same double-edged sword, they are really our allies, not our enemies.

I hate those nagging injuries as much as the next person because they keep me from reaching higher levels of physical skill. I feel the same way about aging, and I still fight it tooth and nail, but I am—at least at this point in my training—beginning to taste and appreciate lemonade.

What do I mean? Well, there’s an old saying that goes something like this: “When you’re stuck with lemons, you can either put on a sour face, or you can make lemonade.” Here, then, are our lemons:

  • If you train seriously, injuries are inescapable
  • If you breathe, then so is aging

Since no one likes a sourpuss, you might as well try to make lemonade from your lemons. The following is an old Chinese recipe.

Traditional Taoist Martial Arts

Although there are hundreds of Chinese martial arts, all of them grew from two traditions: Buddhist (or Shaolin) and Taoist. Of the two, the Shaolin family tree has more distinguishable branches. Divided many times over—into northern/southern, grappling/ striking and so on—the Shaolin arts have numerous recognizable names, including praying mantis, white crane, hung gar and wing chun. The Taoist arts, on the other hand, number only three: hsing-i, pa kua chang chang and tai chi chuan.

Many Taoist martial artists hold that the best course to study self-defense is to begin with hsing-i, intern in pa kua chang changand graduate with an advanced degree in tai chi. Not everyone subscribes to this style-switching progression, believing that each one includes all the necessary elements. But even among those who delve into only one of them, there often exists a similar, albeit less obvious, progression within that art.

The late Jou Tsung Hwa, a renowned tai chi master, believed that his art could be divided into at least three phases. He claimed that the three major tai chi systems—Chen, Yang and Wu—are actually best taught in a progression because they build on and complement one another. As he saw it, the Chen style (the oldest known tai chi system and one that bears marked similarities to hsing-i) should be learned first, since it is half yang and half yin, half hard and half soft. It should be followed with the Yang style (the most popular form and the one that most folks recognize as tai chi), which is 75-percent soft. Finally, one should take up the Wu style, which is considered the most internal of the three with its small, subtle movements.

The progression from hsing-i to pa kua chang to tai chi runs counter to common Western experience in which tai chi by itself is often pursued strictly for its health benefits rather than its martial potential. Unfortunately, this leads to some erroneous conclusions about the effectiveness of tai chi as a means of self-defense.

That aside, there remains something notable about this Taoist progression: It closely parallels and complements us as we grow, age and mature in our practice of the arts.

Tai Chi Chuan Style Overview

The most linear of the three, hsing-i frequently has us advancing in a straight line, turning and advancing again. Strength is opposed mainly by strength, …