Tai ChiShould you focus more on external arts as you get older?

Should you focus more on external arts as you get older?


Seeing these old masters from Taiwan looking so good while practicing their external arts has made me wonder about switching my priorities.

I’ve been enjoying the recent series of videos from Will on his Monkey Steals Peach YouTube Channel of his tour of Taiwan Kung Fu schools. The latest one features Long Fist. It’s been great to see so much good technique demonstrated and also a few of the younger students, proving the arts have a future. 

But of course, a lot of the practitioners Will has featured are older, but that doesn’t stop them being proficient in dealing out the ass whoppings. This has made me reflect on my own training priorities. A lot of these fit-looking older men are training in arts that would be classified as ‘external’ like Long Fist and Mantis, rather than the so-called ‘internal’ arts like Tai Chi or Xing Yi, which are more normally associated with older people. 

Perhaps shifting focus to these external arts, which have longer postures with more twisting and stretching, and are practiced more vigorously is a good idea as you get older?

I’ve got to admit, that while I do feel good after a few run throughs of the Tai Chi form, I probably feel more energised and exercised after a few runs through of a Choy Li Fut form. My cardiovascular system is placed under more stressed for one thing, and my joints get moved through a larger range of motion.

Of course, Yang Cheng-Fu in his 10 Important Points, famously used this distinction between internal and external to explain that external arts were “harmful” for you, and the fact that you don’t get out of breath doing Tai Chi proved its superiority! He wrote (recorded by Chen Weiming, and translated by Jerry Karrin):

“External martial artists prize leaping and stomping, and they do this until breath (chi) and strength are exhausted, so that after practicing they are all out of breath. In Tai Chi Chuan we use quiescence to overcome movement, and even in movement, still have quiescence. So when you practice the form, the slower the better! When you do it slowly your breath becomes deep and long, the chi sinks to the dantian, and naturally there is no harmful constriction or enlargement of the blood vessels. If the student tries carefully they may be able to comprehend the meaning behind these words.”

Yang Cheng Fu

Now, it doesn’t take a genius to make an observation that Yang Cheng-Fu could have done with losing a few pounds himself, and that since he died relatively young his thoughts on longevity should be taken with a pinch of salt. Frankly, I think he could have done with getting a bit out of breath now and again!

It’s also fairly obvious to anybody who has seen Chen style Taijiquan that ‘leaping and stomping’ can be a part of Taijiquan too.

However, I do think there’s something to what he’s saying. When moving slowly and achieving a mediative state of mind you can experience profound levels of relaxation that do feel different to other types of exercise. When you “slow your breath” and it becomes “deep and long” it can feel wonderful. However, is that enough? I think it’s a mistake to use this type of exercise to replace more traditional cardiovascular exercise, and your body will not thank you in the long run.

Why not do both? Tai Chi has its place, but so do external arts of the Shaolin variety. Perhaps the best approach is to not skew too heavily in favour of either, but to adopt a balanced approach where you train both equally? Let me know what you think.



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