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

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, and this style’s rapid-fire punches remind us of modern wing chun. Granted, this is a generalization. There is much we can say to mitigate and expand upon some of these impressions, but they are accurate as far as they go and, as such, useful for this discussion. Hsing-i, then, is rigorous, conditioning, strengthening and especially effective when we have the speed and strength of youth. Technically more precise, sophisticated and smoother than hsing-i, pa kua chang chang requires less effort and strength. Whereas hsing-i is more linear, pa kua chang is circular. The two arts are extremely effective in and of themselves, and many practitioners spend their lives studying just one of them. However, it is when we work through hsing-i and progress well into pa kua chang chang that our combat effectiveness soars. In The Way of the Warrior, Howard Reid and Michael Croucher quote a master named Hung I-hsiang: “In pa kua, the emphasis is on tricks and subtle evasive action. Unlike hsing-i, it does not require one to face the opponent directly. In hsing-i, 1,000 kilos of strength is met with 1,000 kilos. In pa kua, one tries to move in circles to avoid direct confrontation, thereby permitting one to deflect and overturn 1,000 kilos of strength with only 100 grams. Hsing-i is direct and linear, pa kua chang is indirect and circular. Tai chi works in all directions.” Tai chi represents the crème de la crème of the Taoist martial arts. As the last step in a progressive martial arts training program, it demands still less effort and strength, for the physical conditioning and toughening of hsing-i have paved the way for the technical excellence developed in pa kua. That, in turn, yields to a complete blending with the opponent that is so perfect it uses his energy to effect his destruction.

Taoist Martial Arts’ Natural Progression

Armed with a general understanding of hsing-i, pa kua chang and tai chi, we can now draw a parallel between this traditional Taoist progression and lifelong martial arts training. Besides providing an effective method of self-defense, hsing-i serves to condition, toughen and prepare us when we’re young. With youthful vigor and strength, we are more than capable of fighting fire with fire, of facing force with force. But as we enter middle age, old injuries take their toll and strength begins to wane. No amount of additional training can overcome the injury-imposed limitations or halt the decline. What were once punishing blows and blocks now become painful, even harmful to us. Techniques that were possible are now impractical. Recovery times lengthen, and decreased stamina makes prolonged conflict even less desirable. This stage is the first point of discouragement, and many of us simply acquiesce here and cease martial arts training altogether. However, this is unnecessary, and the Taoist arts show us how to adjust. Moving into pa kua, we learn new methods that enhance our technical skill, allowing us to overcome an adversary using sophisticated, largely circular movements in place of raw speed and strength. Challenged once again, we discover that there is still more to learn. Equally important, our need for self-defense is still satisfied. Now, however, the training and fighting progress without the collateral damage to us. All this is unthinkable to younger students, for they have neither developed sufficiently in the basics nor do they possess the necessary wisdom of years to recognize the need to try something else. Athletes who are strong and in great shape almost despite their years will probably not pursue different avenues until pain overrules any gain received from their current training methods. But even the seasoned practitioner cannot remain forever in this middle-age category, for time marches on. This brings us to tai chi, the “grand ultimate fist.” In our advanced years, even if we are a hard stylist we find that our art’s focus and training methods are “softening.” Whether by conscious decision or subconscious evolution, our body resists repeated hard martial arts training. For example, those who have witnessed the development of tang soo do claim that the methods that were part of the founder’s curriculum have changed with every decade of his life, softening considerably in later years. In this vein, tai chi offers us the grand, ultimate destination in the Taoist progression. We may be less virile in appearance, but once we have mastered hsing-i, pa kua chang and tai chi, we will seldom be challenged successfully. We will remain a formidable player, largely because our skill is based on a natural progression and on the years of experience that such a progression demands.

Taoist Martial Arts: A Lifelong Study

Even if we do not study the Taoist martial arts, that kind of progression is still possible. The specific martial arts training we choose are less important than their philosophies, methods and principles. We can substitute any number of hard styles for hsing-i, for instance. Likewise, there are many arts from China and Southeast Asia that can stand in quite nicely for pa kua chang chang. What is important is our willingness to embrace the changes forced on us by injury and aging, not merely accept their consequences. If that means switching arts to learn new principles, so be it. At the beginning of this article, I stated that seeking alternative methods of martial arts training does not mean settling for second best and that injury and aging can actually be our allies. Believe it or not, at age 56 my technique is more effective than it was when I was younger and stronger. Obviously, having trained for 30-plus years has a lot to do with that, but more important is the fact that my strength no longer hampers my ability to relax while moving—and relaxation is the key to unlocking speed and power. Despite not being as strong as I was decades ago, I am significantly faster. I hit harder than ever, but without the effort and the damage to myself. I would never have improved so much had my body remained whole and my strength remained as it was 30 years ago. The transition was also possible because the arts I study are amenable to “softer” execution of their techniques. In fact, beyond the beginner’s level, every technique and principle in the arts I study actually improves in efficiency when executed with less strength. And therein lies the challenge: How do you train to use less strength in an endeavor that may someday be needed to save your life? Less strength and relaxed execution seem counterintuitive when you’re learning potentially life-saving skills.

Good News for Your Martial Arts Training

There is no easy way to surmount that obstacle. Perhaps the best advice is to train smarter, not harder. We must listen to our bodies. As martial artists, we’re supposed to be in tune with ourselves. When we find that meeting 1,000 pounds of force with 1,000 pounds of resistance is getting harder, we must step back and reevaluate our martial arts training. If our martial art’s answer is to train still harder, we should seriously consider looking elsewhere. I have many taekwondo friends, for example, who now augment their martial arts training with tai chi—not just for health, but for continuing growth in their martial skills. For some of us, our own discipline and determination prevent us from looking elsewhere. We try harder (not smarter) until something breaks. Only then do we look elsewhere. I know— been there, done that. A bad back and subsequent operation forced me to lower my kicking height. But instead of settling for less, I found that kicking low was not only more effective but also more challenging than I’d thought. And as arthritis made punching hard targets more painful, my recognition of the greater vulnerability of other targets, such as joints and limbs, soared. At the same time, my appreciation for my other weapons—knees, elbows, open hands and so on—grew significantly. The nature of this article requires a perspective that only age and experience can bring. Whether you see that as fortunate or unfortunate may foretell how you will continue to grow in the martial arts as your injury toll and age climb and your physical abilities sink. Even if you are still young and vigorous, this article applies to you, for it is a harbinger of things to come. Heed it, and your knowledge, skill and pleasure in the arts will continue for many years. Skip it, and enjoy to the fullest the few youthful years you have left, for they will be brief. (Bob Orlando is a freelance writer and martial artist based in Colorado. He has trained for more than 30 years and holds instructor-level rank in kuntao and pentjak silat.)
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