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My experiences of a taiji seminar

Posted Jan 29 2013 12:00am

Last Saturday my husband and I attended a taiji seminar in Durham with experienced taiji instructor Joe Harte, whom I met and become acquainted with through my activities with the annual Marfest event last year.

We like to talk about internal and external arts and generally find our own art categorised into one of these groups without fully appreciating why or what it really means. I’m well aware that karate is categorised as an external art yet in karate we talk about (a lot) and practice (to a lesser extent) breath control, mind-body-spirit unity, altered mind states such as mushin (empty mind) and zanshin (aware mind). On the surface these seem like ‘internal’ elements yet karate remains doggedly an external art! Why? And what, therefore, is an internal art?

These were questions I wanted to answer. Joe had intrigued me with something he said last year along the lines of “…Master Huang changed this form so that on the outside it looked exactly the same but on the inside felt very different….” How can something be changed to look the same on the outside but be very different in the way it feels?

I knew the only way I was going to gain any insight into what an internal art really is was to go and experience it for myself. Having fortuitously met Joe I now had the means and opportunity to do this so I booked us onto the seminar….

Joe had warned me to dress up warm – several layers, hat, gloves, scarf etc, and wear flat shoes. “You won’t get sweaty in a taiji class,” he warned nor could he guarantee the heating would be on. Like many people I had a mental image of doing forms in a slow, relaxed way. I knew that more than that must be going on but wasn't quite sure what.

We arrived a bit late due to the adverse weather conditions- the heavens had decided to drop another 3 inches of snow all over Britain on Friday night meaning there had been very little time for the gritters and snow ploughs to get the roads clear. The class was already doing some gentle warm up exercises so we just quietly got ready and joined in at the back.

The general etiquette and atmosphere in the class was much more relaxed and informal than in a karate class – no waiting to catch sensei’s eye to bow you onto the training area or giving you punishment press-ups because you are late! In fact, no bowing (or press-ups) at all.

After the warm up exercises Joe explained that we were going to do Master Huang’s 5 loosening exercises. My interpretation was that these exercises are partly designed to help you relax your body and muscles properly and partly to start you on the path to discovering your ‘deep mind’. Joe talked us through these exercises instructing us on the external movements required and how we were supposed to be thinking and feeling on the inside, teaching us how to listen to our internal senses rather than just relying on our external senses.

We are all familiar with our external senses – sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste but not very familiar at all with our internal ones, which were defined as temperature, pressure, pain, muscle state and joint position. The idea seems to be to try and connect with the part of the unconscious mind that generally controls these senses automatically – the deep mind or Joe sometimes referred to it as the ‘body’s mind’. So as we went through the loosening exercises we were encouraged to think about the pressure experienced on our feet as our weight shifted about or about whether certain muscles were in a state of contraction or relaxation.

To aid our understanding we broke off to do a partner exercise in which one partner took the weight of the others outstretched arm (stretched out horizontally to the side). You then had to gently lift your arm a fraction from the partners hold by first contracting the shoulder muscle, then the upper arm muscles to lift the elbow and finally the lower arm muscles to lift the wrist and hand. Then you had to relax the muscles in the same order – shoulder, upper arm then lower arm, resting your arm back onto the partners hold. If you had managed to completely relax the arm it should feel heavy to the person holding it and if they withdrew their hold then your arm should drop under its own weight. When I held my partner’s arm in a relaxed state it felt like a bar of lead. When he held mine and gently withdrew his hold my arm stubbornly remained in a horizontal position even though I thought I was relaxing it. I'm clearly not in communication with this internal sense!
Joe said it takes years of training to even begin to get in touch with deep mind and exert some control over it so I shouldn't be too surprised I couldn't’ do it.

Joe then introduced us to the idea of the ‘vertical circle’, which is an important concept in taiji. This idea refers to subtle lifting and sinking of the body as you cycle through a movement. We first met the concept during one of the loosening exercises and then again when we were doing one of the forms and then again during a push-hands exercise. Experiencing the vertical circle seem to involve standing in a fairly relaxed posture with one foot forward and the weight mainly on the back foot. You then imagined your mind moving upwards and forwards in an arc resulting in a gentle shifting of your weight slightly upwards and onto your front foot. You then moved your mind down below the ground bringing more weight to bear on the front leg. Your mind then comes up again (still following the arc of the circle), shifting your weight to your back foot again. It was important to ensure you were ‘opening your lower back’ to straighten the spine (like in sanchin dache), open up the hips and drop the shoulder. Your mind then returned to your head bringing you back to a more neutral stance to complete the circle. I may have got the details of that a little wrong but that was the gist of it.

This vertical circle seemed a very important technique to help train the deep mind and to generate internal power. We did another exercise with a partner in which one partner just stood sideways on to the other with their arms folded across their chest. The other partner then touched them on their arm (from the side) with both hands (as if to push) and went through the movements of the vertical circle before releasing the energy as a push. I seem to remember the mantra for this being: touch, connect, merge and follow. The ‘pushing arms’ stay relaxed and the power comes more from the body so that the ‘pushed’ person is not shoved by the use of bicep power. Using the core muscles in this way should result in a stronger push. Being a karateka I found it hard not to shove even though I know that’s not the best way to move a heavy object, even in karate. In fact, this exercise reminded me of the wave form pushing exercise we do in karate - I’m not brilliant at that either!

We spent a short time on a pushing-hands technique, designed to increase your sensitivity to your partner’s movements but much of the rest of the seminar was spent focussing on forms, a short form in the morning and a fast ‘quick fist’ form in the afternoon. Taiji forms differ immensely from karate kata in being much longer and more fluid. I found them very complicated to follow and won’t even pretend that I remember any part of them!

Taiji is not physically demanding in the way karate is but my word is it mentally demanding. This searching within yourself to find your deep mind is difficult but fascinating and ultimately deeply relaxing. I’m starting to understand what is meant by ‘internal’ arts now and it is quite different to what I expected.

I can see why karate is definitely an external art. Even the journey to self-improvement of the budoka involves only really improving the ‘superficial’ or conscious mind through the development of character and your relationship with the outside world. The internal arts follow a much more inward journey which requires you to learn to put aside your superficial mind in order to find your deep mind. It seems that the external and internal martial artists are on very different paths – probably ones that cannot merge very easily, if at all.

If you want to find out more about the style of taiji that I experienced then follow these links:

1.   An interview with Joe Harte:

2.   An interview with Patrick Kelly (Joe’s teacher):

3.   Joe’s website:

4.   Patrick Kelly’s website:

Patrick Kelly trained directly with Master Huang. Here’s a link to an interview with Master Huang who died in 1992:

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