A Teacher and Researcher’s View on Training Taichi
by Chin Jianhong
Seven years ago, Master Rennie Chong was standing on an elevated platform in the Multi-purpose sports hall of the National University of Singapore. There were several students crowding around Master Chong, an elderly gentleman of slightly over 60 years of age, watching him challenge a well-built student at least three times younger than him. I was standing within the crowd, gazing in amazement, how the young man was leaning his whole body weight on Master Chong, trying fruitlessly to push him off his stance. Master Chong was composed, while the poor young man’s face was twisted from expending too much energy. In an instant, Master Chong turned his body slightly to the right, and the young man was thrown forward past Master Chong, to the applause of everyone below the platform.
Seven years later, year 2010, I was performing exactly the same move, throwing around men with arm muscles the size of my thighs at California Fitness. What I had done was to focus my weight on my leg in front, while propping up my body with my other leg at the back. The reason, I was explaining to the students, why they had so much difficulty in pushing me away, was that I had made use of Newton’s third law. This classical law states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. By relaxing my body and positioning it rightly, the students were in fact pushing not me, but the ground. The law was simple and straightforward, but it was no easy task to learn and incorporate in taichi. From the example, we can see that taichi is in effect a harmonious combination of the body structure, physiology and physics, as advocated by the Yang Style Grandmaster Cheng Man Ching, and emphasized frequently by Master Chong.
Five years after practicing taichi under Master Chong, I was invited to assist him in his classes, teaching mainly beginners. I liked teaching and interacting with the beginners, as I was able to share with them my insights on the theories and practical usage of taichi in relation to health and science. Master Chong, a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner, frequently explained to students how taichi helps in balancing the five elements, representative of the five major organs of the human body system. I, myself, am a researcher in the field of the health sciences, and I enjoy reading about scientific journals studying taichi. Journals involving geriatrics published articles on how taichi can improve the balance and general physical and mental health of the elderly. The New England Journal of Medicine, a prestigious journal in the scientific field recently published an article* on how taichi can help benefit patients with fibromyalgia, a form of chronic pain in the muscles, tendons and joints. According to the article, taichi is a multicomponent intervention to the disease, which involves “physical, psychosocial, emotional, spiritual, and behavioural elements”. The physical component of taichi involves relaxing movements similar to that in physiotherapy treatments. The emotional, spiritual and behavioural elements of taichi are manifested in the mediation and breathing exercises, which calms the nerves and raise pain thresholds. More importantly, when patients practice together and make friends, they are able to discuss about their problems and give support to one another. This forms the psychosocial component. Thus the multicomponent aspects of taichi make it a superior intervention compared to physiotherapy alone. With regards to the social component of taichi, students in our classes make fast friends with each other. I, myself have found a partner among my juniors.
Assisting Master Chong in his teaching has also helped me hone my skills. Often I see students tense up their shoulders and “floating” when interchanging between stances in the form. Such are common mistakes which I make myself, and I am able to remind myself not to commit the same errors. While explaining the movements to students, I often reuse the explanations of Master Chong and other seniors, and therefore this helped me recap how certain moves should be executed.
Master Chong teaches taichi in a unique fashion, using a combination of theory in medicine, physics and practical application in martial arts. Once a student told me how she liked my detailed explanation, which is unlike how she was taught previously in other training centres. She commented that she had never understood how the individual stances were performed in detail and how they were used, till now. At that moment, I was very grateful that I have inherited Master Chong’s way of teaching, which will undoubtedly be very useful in future for me. As a researcher myself, I hope to one day conduct clinical trials on how taichi can help treat certain diseases. Understanding and knowing how to explain taichi in theory would be a bonus for me if I were to embark in such a research.
To conclude, practicing taichi here has helped me fulfil some of my dreams: to learn a martial art in depth, to teach, to find friendship, and to find love.
*Wang C et al. (2010) A Randomized Trial of Tai Chi for Fibromyalgia. The New England Journal of Medicine 363:743-54.