A magazine of martial and movement arts, with a focus on the internal style of Tai Chi Chuan
The Tai Chi Book
Refining and Enjoying a Lifetime of Practice
by Robert Chuckrow
(YMAA Publication Center, 1998, 210 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
Robert Chuckrow is the author of, as far as I can tell, four books on Tai Chi. The Tai Chi Book is, apparently, the second of these. I have a reason for saying “apparently.” His first book, released in 1995, was titled T’ai chi ch’uan: Embracing the pearl: Including the teachings of Cheng Man-ch’ing, William C.C. Chen, and Harvey I. Sober, and the sub-sub title to The Tai Chi Book is Including the Teachings of Cheng Man-ch’ing, William C.C. Chen, and Harvey I. Sober. So it’s unclear to me if The Tai Chi Book is an expansion of the earlier work, or if both just happen to include teachings from the Tai Chi experts named in both, all of whom Chuckrow learned from. I’d buy the earlier book to find out, but it is out of print and used copies go for $150, so for now, I’ll just have to accept my ignorance.
The Tai Chi Book is a very good Category 1 book, intended for the beginner and intermediate student. In it, Chuckrow delves into various aspects of Tai Chi with, as can be guessed by the three experts named in the sub-sub title, an emphasis on the style developed by Cheng Man-ch’ing (Zheng Manquing). With a Ph.D. in physics, he brings to bear a scientific approach to understanding the dynamics of Tai Chi, and with a background in teaching both physics and Tai Chi, he knows how to present his material well.
He opens the book with a few brief remarks before getting into the first chapter: “What is T’ai Chi Ch’uan?” The chapter begins with his discovery of Tai Chi—fortuitously that taught by Cheng Man-ch’ing, perhaps the art’s leading exponent in the United States at that time. He then delineates several aspects of what Tai Chi “is”: a spiritual teaching, a form of meditation, a system of health and healing, a physical expression of Taoist philosophy, and a system of self-defense. He spends several to many pages on each of these subjects, delving into some of the deeper aspects of each.
Chapter two is titled, simply, “Ch’i.” Elements he discusses here are chi kung, what chi is in broad terms, the benefits of strengthening one’s chi, how chi is experienced, a possible scientific basis for chi, why some people fail to experience chi, sensing and cultivating chi, sending chi, the effects of clothing on chi, chi possessed by inanimate objects, feng shui (geomancy), cautions about chi, and why the existence of chi is hard for some people to accept.
The next chapter covers a number of basic ideas, concepts and principles of Tai Chi. Early on, he quotes Cheng Man-ch’ing, who was master of the Five Excellences: painting, traditional Chinese medicine, Tai Chi, calligraphy, and poetry. When Cheng was asked which of the five was the most difficult, he replied, “T’ai Chi Ch’uan is the hardest because it has more principles than any of the others.” Chuckrow expands on this, writing, “Not only are the principles numerous, but they require consistent practice over an extended period of time.” He then proceeds to describe these principles in brief or longer subsections: air, balance, centering, chi, circles, concentration, continuity, double weighting, drawing silk (silk reeling), gravity, levelness of motion, leverage, macroscopic and microscopic movement, Newton’s First Law (which defines the inertia of motion and rest), Newton’s Third Law (which states that a force generates an equal and opposite force), opening and closing of the joints, peng, perpetual motion, precision, rotation, sensitivity, separation of yin and yang, sequence of motion, shape, spatial relationships, stepping, sticking, strength, sung (sinking/relaxation), suspension of the head, unity of movement, the body’s axis, vision, and visualization. If you think that’s a run-on sentence, then just consider it to be a long form, flowing like a river.
Breathing is the subject of chapter four. The author begins with everyday breathing and efficient or inefficient breathing. He then moves on to Tai Chi breathing, or more properly, abdominal breathing. Chapter five looks at body alignments, beginning with a definition of alignment and reasons why awareness of alignment is important, then moving on to obstacles to proper alignment. Chuckrow then provides details regarding the alignments of specific joints and linked joint groups in the arms, the legs, the torso, and the neck and head. Warm-ups and stretching are examined in the following chapter. The importance of flexibility are looked at first, followed by a number of important concepts about stretching.
Chapter seven takes on stances, which are the foundation of Tai Chi’s solidity and its ability to dissipate and expel energy. Here, Chuckrow introduces a number of terms linked with particular stances, such as parallel stance, empty stance, and double weighting. These concepts find further explication in descriptions of several key Tai Chi stances, such as 50/50, 70/30, and 100 percent. He also helpfully includes warnings about how certain faulty alignments not only adversely affect stances and their stability, but can inadvertently lead to injury.
The next chapter, “On Being a Student,” leads off with what has to be the most important idea in all of Tai Chi: a commitment to dedicated practice over a long period of time. He also discusses group vs individual practice, the length of practice sessions, practicing indoors vs outdoors, time of day to practice, self-discipline, how to deal with the fear of making mistakes, one’s mental state during practice, varying practice speed, mirror image practice (see below), practice in different locations, and several other aspects. He includes here some exercises for improving balance. He then goes into teachers of Tai Chi, from choosing a teacher to teaching methods, and how one should assess teachers. He finishes with a number of pages of advice to beginners, from understanding the learning process to measuring progress. Learning from books and videos also is covered here.
Health, healing, and sexuality are the subjects of chapter nine. He begins with several pages on injuries, learning from injuries, and treating various types of basic injuries such as bruises, sprains, tendonitis, and cuts. A section on massage follows, and after that, the author moves down to the feet, which often are neglected but which are the ultimate foundation for the body. Brief discussions of nutrition, sexuality, and sleep round out the chapter.
Chapter ten covers a number of miscellaneous matters, such as art and Tai Chi, science and Tai Chi, and comparisons of long and short forms. Variations in the forms of great masters, such as how much the rear leg is bent and using a straight or bent wrist, are examined next.
The final chapter takes on push hands, from basic one-handed forms through moving two-handed forms. Here, again, principles dominate, such as yielding, neutralization, correct force, rooting, receiving energy, sticking, listening, and non-action, among many others. The book closes with an appendix showing Chuckrow demonstrating Cheng Man-ch’ing’s thirty-seven posture short form.
While this is, to all extents and purposes, a book for the beginner and intermediate student—and it covers all the bases for those students—it is unusual in including a great deal more information on health and well-being than do most such books.
A lot of the material the author covers could be dry and uninterestingly stated, but Chuckrow is too good a writer and teacher for that. He continually livens things up with anecdotes and personal stories to give life to the concepts he writes about. This makes the book more interesting as well as sinking in the points he makes.
I do have to comment on one element. Early on, Chuckrow states that Cheng Man-ch’ing taught that one should not perform Tai Chi in left-handed, or, mirror-image forms. Cheng’s reasoning was that the two sides of the body are not symmetrical with regards to the placement of internal organs and that while the energies generated by doing the usual, right-handed form are beneficial, they can be detrimental when generated by doing the form in mirror image. I was taught nearly four decades ago to do the form on both sides to help balance the body, and I don’t appear to have suffered any adverse effects. Further, I’ve seen that doing the form in mirror image actually expands its martial repertoire. Some of the applications in the right-handed form can only deal with left-handed attacks, which are less likely than right-handed attacks, and doing the form on both sides enables the practitioner to utilize the full range of applications on either side. Chuckrow doesn’t go into this idea, in particular, though later in the book, he does discuss doing the form in mirror image in more positive terms.
Another thing I like about the book is that the author places the footnotes for each chapter at the end of the chapter instead of at the end of the book, making it easy for readers to flip to learn more if a particular footnote strikes a chord of interest.
One final note: The Tai Chi Book was a 1999 Independent Publishers Award Finalist.
While there are a number of excellent Tai Chi books for the beginner on the market, this one easily stacks up.