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Editorial: Why Taiji

Volume 3 Number 1
Winter 2002

The horrific events of September 11, 2001 cast a pall over our everyday lives. Too stunned for words that night at class, we worked out without a word, together, each person immersed in his or her own thoughts. In the silence of our practice that Tuesday, thoughts kept bubbling up: why taiji? What good is it in the face of what has happened? Why do we practice something so "yin" at a time that calls for aggressive action? What role does taiji play when we are under immediate or potential threat? Does it have a place in warfare, or is it inherently pacifistic? What can we do, how can we use our taiji training to help?

Two days later at our next class, we began discussing these questions. The voices recorded below from that week and in subsequent discussions show that we all practice taiji for different reasons. We taiji people are no more monolithic a group than any other in our feelings and our reactions. Clearly, that night, many of us felt a need to come together as a group to practice, despite our raw emotions, despite our differing views, to keep to our routine, to escape tragedy for an hour's time, to be with others. And later, our thoughts turned toward how to respond and cope with the changes that this event forces upon us. Our silent, soft, solo, internal practice is now shattered by external events.

"Face it, practicing taiji is a luxury," one person insisted. Someone else said they found solace and calm at class at the end of a day of fear, anger, and sorrow. An e-mail message arrived from Bill Douglas, founder of World T'ai Chi and Qigong Day, "Our world, your friends, family, students, and community need the island of clarity that your taiji or qigong practice has cultivated within you....rather than being put aside for harder, tighter thoughts of accusation and revenge." Another teacher sends a plea for peace and harmony, "Can't we be friends?" is the plea behind the message. Another blasts back, "Let's bomb them to oblivion."

But why taiji? What can it possibly do for us at a time like this?

"Start with inhale and exhale," offers Robert Smith, martial arts historian. "Tolstoy said, "time and patience. That's what we need right now." We need to relax, reflect, and not get drawn off into panicky knee-jerk reactions. That process begins with inhale and exhale. Not only do we need time and patience to help us recover from the event, but also in forming our responses. "Man, I need an outlet," one person declares. "I've got all this energy, adrenaline, testosterone, whatever, with no outlet." For one person it seems, taiji is a way to tame aggression, for another it is an outlet for it.

Taiji teachers living in affected areas have been helping students cope with the shock of losses, fear, and the proximity of the attacks. One tells of a student who narrowly escaped one of the buildings. Other taiji people have helped out by giving acupuncture and massage treatments to rescue workers.

"I came to class tonight for my health!" said one student. "I needed to breathe, to keep my center. I haven't been able to focus on anything. I came here so I could remember to relax."

Yielding...softness...calm, even in the face of the unexpected. "Even if Mount Tai were to crumble in front of you, your countenance does not change," said a Chinese sage. Practice the solo form as if there were an opponent in front of you. Be rooted. Find your center. Find yourself.

"All of our practice is about maintaining the self. That's true for any organism," said one man. "Keep your balance, keep yourself protected. By extension, the self is your family, your friends, your country." Another person observed, "Ultimately, this is a test of our true roots, by that I mean our humanity."

Listen and follow. "We not only have to listen to ourselves, but also our opponents. We have to listen to what those people are saying about us and why. Why are they so angry at us? The rage of these people is no different than the confused rage of a child taking out a gun at school."

"Yeah, but we can't be taking care of them and past hurts when we've got them attacking our very core-this was an act of war, and it calls for a response."

"We also have to follow in terms of tactics. Otherwise, we are limited by our own imaginations, just as we are if we only work out in safe, push hands situations. We got ourselves stuck by defending against a certain set of tactics, against certain kinds of enemies, and these guys, they found our vulnerabilities. The rules of engagement have changed, and we don't seem to understand that. It's as if you went in to do push hands and the other person pulls a gun on you. Not only that, he's willing to die in the process."

"But if you're always on edge," one person points out, "or paranoid, then taiji isn't very relaxing, is it?"

"It's totally different training to be in actual combat" says another. "It's the same principles, but a different goal. You have to learn that warrior mentality, and that's quite different than just doing taiji to relax or for fun."

For many of us, September's events have helped define what is truly important in life, and have given a sharper edge to our taijiquan practice.

"There are all these layers to taiji practice. You look inside, deeper and deeper, and discover your root, how to do some subtle move," says one student who has taught social studies for many years. "This kind of situation, is layered as well. There are complex relationships of diplomacy, economics, patriotism, religion, geography, military, and then all the internal dynamics of each country-all these layers that make the whole thing very difficult to solve. So we need to explore those layers, just as carefully as we do in taiji."

Clearly, there is not one pat answer for what has happened, for how we react to it, how we adjust to the changes, or for why we continue to practice taijiquan. But by allowing ourselves to acclimate to this new situation, though, we regain control. If we fight the changes, we lose our balance. Crises can push us to our limits and at those limits, at those precarious situations, we find ourselves anew.

Barbara Davis - Editor

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