A magazine of martial and movement arts, with a focus on the internal style of Tai Chi Chuan
by Robert Chuckrow
(YMMA Publications Center, Inc., 2008, 252 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
Among books on tai chi, there are the good, bad, and those in the middle ground. Among the good ones, there are those that are pretty good, very good, and really, really good. I’d place Robert Chuckrow’s Tai Chi Dynamics near the top of the scale. This book occupies a space somewhere between Category II and Category III. It has a fair share of discussion of how tai chi functions on a practical level—which includes energy manipulations as well as physical movement—but it also delves deeply into principles and philosophical matters.
Chuckrow, who has a Ph.D. in experimental physics and taught that subject at a private school for most of his career, studied with Cheng Man-ch’ing, William C. C. Chen, and Harvey I Sober, among others. His tai chi credentials are as solid as his knowledge of physics, and both inform and lend a great deal of credibility to what he has to say. Maybe that’s why this is just the most recent of his several books on tai chi.
Chuckrow opens with a chapter titled, “Muscular Action in Taiji Movement,” which discusses the need for strength in the martial arts as well as the different kinds of strength possible for one to employ. Tai chi’s “tenacious strength,” jin, is contrasted to muscular strength, or li, following which, Chuckrow writes: “This chapter attempts to analyze muscular action in a way that should reduce the time for practitioners to understand the distinction between jin and li.” This “attempt” runs through several subsections titled, “Force,” “Muscular Action: Contraction and Extension,” “A Reconsideration of Zheng’s [Cheng Man-ch’ing] Distinction Between the Two Types of Strength,” “Implied Strength,” “Peng,” Muscular Action and Yin and Yang,” and Sympathetic Muscular Tension.”
Throughout, the information is solid and practical, and one of the main takeaways from this excellent parsing of strength and muscular action is the linking of jin with muscular extension rather than muscular contraction. Chuckrow learned the concept of muscular extension from Elaine Summers, and while I’d never heard the concept given a name, I immediately recognized the validity of this way of looking at—and experiencing—tai chi movements. I’ll leave the details to Chuckrow, but in short, muscular extension asks you to execute movements by elongating muscles rather than by contracting them. In other words, if you hold your arm out in front of you, palm up, there are two ways you can make your forearm pivot on your elbow to cause your palm to move toward your face. The first is to contract your bicep, and the second is to extend your triceps. Tai chi employs the latter.
The next chapter is on breathing and covers natural breathing and reverse breathing and presents a few exercises to help the practitioner engage in diaphragmatic breathing. The author spends time on a number of aspects involved in breathing that most tai chi books either gloss over or do not cover at all. This is a shame because proper breathing is essential to generate and propel chi through the meridians, so thanks go to Chuckrow for his insights on this subject.
The chapter that follows, which occupies a little more than twenty pages, is where Chuckrow’s science background comes to the fore. Titled, “Relationships of Conditions, Shape, Timing, Muscular Action, and Yin and Yang in Taiji Movements,” it is a far-ranging examination of tai chi dynamics that begins by defining relative body motion before defining movement along three principal planes. He includes concepts such as parallax, which he defines as “the apparent relative movement of two objects at different distances from an observer, resulting from movement of the observer.” Parallax, he writes, “can also be useful in a self-defense situation if properly utilized in conjunction with the myriad other ways of processing information.”
He discusses the circularity of tai chi movements next, which includes footwork as well as arm and hand movements. Next he delves into how the body displays both convexity and concavity and how those bows can be employed to make the body’s movements more subtle as well as more powerful. The way that many tai chi movements begin and end with various parts moving simultaneously is discussed next, which segues naturally into a section on stepping. Muscular extension plays a role here, as do the natural swing of the leg when stepping and the idea of solid/empty stances. Other elements, such as concentration and practicing on rough surfaces finish out the chapter.
“Dynamics of Movement” is the title of the next chapter, which, in thirty pages, delivers more solid information on how tai chi functions than many books do in total. The concepts are almost too numerous to enumerate here, and certainly I’ll have to leave it to Chuckrow’s own words to add detail. He starts with the idea that movement is either yin or yang, and uses that to explain how movement is affected by, uses, or produces inertia, equal and opposite action and reaction, gravity, leverage, centrifugal force, linear and angular momentum, peng, torque, hydraulic pressure, kinetic energy, potential energy, spring energy, periodic motion, vibration, wave motion, and intention. This is fascinating reading, containing a number of excellent concepts that are all well explained. He then goes on to show how tai chi movements can transform one type of mechanical energy into another. Shifting of weight and turning the body correctly wind up this chapter. I really appreciate it when a tai chi author brings a wide range of knowledge to bear on the subject, since, indeed, tai chi finds significant connections throughout reality.
A chapter titled “Seemingly Paradoxical Admonitions” is next. This consists, in essence, of maxims from the Tai Chi Classics recast as simple statements that the author then explicates at some length within the framework of tai chi. This is followed by a chapter on stretching, focusing on muscular extension.
Push hands and applications occupy the next two chapters. Most of the chapter on push hands is not specifically practical but more concerned with motivation, principles, connection between partners, balance, and leverage. Helpful is a list of push-hands errors. The chapter on applications is, in a sense, obligatory, but it’s probably the weakest chapter in the book. The dozen or so applications are basic, and while they are adequately discussed in text and two to three photos each, this section isn’t any different or better than similar sections in scores of tai chi books. But I suppose the applications do illustrate certain concepts of which beginners might not be aware, even if this book seems geared more for the intermediate and advanced student. The photos are somewhat fuzzy or murky, which tends to be the case with the photography throughout the book, though it’s not especially distracting.
A far-ranging look at tai chi as a martial art follows. It includes subsections on modern self-protection tools, chin na, falling and rolling, deception, distancing, laws pertaining to the use of weapons and deadly force, throwing objects, striking, anatomy, grappling, taking punches, hiding and evading, knots, survival in extreme conditions, crime, and creativity in utilizing self-defense. Most of these are very short and don’t really contain specific information or advice but serve more as reminders to consider these elements at greater length on one’s own.
Cheng Man-ch’ing is the subject of the book’s next chapter. It’s a short but pithy chapter that drops a lot of names and relates several anecdotes about Cheng, all of which is fun as well as interesting. Of note is a digression on Cheng’s teachings on the use of strength and yielding, and how his ideas might have been erroneously fastened on by some practitioners.
The author then devotes a long chapter to health, including the effects of muscular action, external influences, sexual activity, dealing with pain, self-massage, and fasting. He includes a list of more than thirty famous tai chi masters, along with the dates of their births and deaths and their life spans in years. One of the promotional words used to advertise tai chi is “longevity,” and this chart goes a long way to dispelling the myth that tai chi, alone, will make you live longer. Yang Cheng-fu, for example, was only 53 when he died. T. T. Liang, though, reached 102.
Self-development occupies the next chapter. This material is primarily philosophical in tone rather than instructional, but there is a lot of practical advice, too. A great deal of the material in this chapter isn’t directly related to tai chi, but as tai chi practitioners come to realize, everything about you affects your tai chi, and your tai chi affects everything else. It becomes easy, after a time, to draw parallels between your tai chi practice and other elements of your life. In subsections like “Laughter,” “Negativity,” “Regret,” and “Criticism,” Chuckrow gives the reader a quiet rendition of a prescription for better living, and through that, a way to develop the self in accord with not only what should be, but what is. Included is a Q&A section in which he gives answers to questions about life that he was asked by his physics students.
The chapter after primarily concerns teaching tai chi, from practical suggestions to where to teach, how to teach, how much to charge, how to deal with class administration, and other related matters. This chapter has information useful to beginners seeking a teacher, but it is obviously geared more toward those thinking of teaching tai chi on their own, which isn't an activity for beginners.
A chapter on miscellaneous items winds up the book. It talks about, among other things, the Romanization of Chinese words, sweating, skeletal relationships, persistence, content vs. outer appearance, and studying with teachers who interpret tai chi matters differently. Included are instructions for making your own tai chi slippers, complete with a pattern.
Chuckrow has an easy, comfortable style of writing that makes it seem like you’re just sitting there, listening to him. The pages are seasoned with anecdotes and personal stories that help illustrate his points with examples from a variety of life-learning experiences. But that easy style manages to convey a great deal of substance. The book is loaded with diagrams, illustrations, and photos to supplement the text. No tai chi book is perfect, but Tai Chi Dynamics is pretty darn good and surveys a lot of important territory.