A magazine of martial and movement arts, with a focus on the internal style of Tai Chi Chuan
Tai Chi in the Driveway
by Christopher Dow
Tai Chi metaphors abound in reality. I guess that’s because Tai Chi so closely adheres to natural laws. But you can find Tai Chiness in a lot of things. One of them is sitting out in my driveway right now. My car. (Figure 1)
In Tai Chi, we can consider the legs to be the engine, the pelvic area to be the driver, and the torso and arms to be the car. This matches Tai Chi theory, which states that martial power is generated in the legs, directed by the waist, and manifested in the arms and hands. In a car, the raw energy from the engine is controlled and directed by the driver (ultimately by the driver’s mind manifesting through physical movement to steer and use the pedals), and the car responds appropriately.
We can carry the Tai Chi/automobile analogy in a couple of other directions. First, it’s kind of interesting that a driver generally uses a wheel to control and direct a vehicle, just as the Tai Chi Chuanist uses a wheel-like turning of the pelvic area to control and direct martial force and power. And in both cases, the main wheel turns other wheels to produce a dynamic effect, such as swerving to avoid an impact. In both car and Tai Chi, all movements are circular, and even sharp turns take curving paths, and in both, the navel always points straight ahead.
Second, controlling direction and angle of movement is only part of Tai Chi’s martial aspect. There also is controlling the wave of internal energy that bolsters or is added to the movements, the sudden release of which is called fa jing. Similar in a car is using the gas pedal to send the car forward with a surge of acceleration or the brake to suddenly withdraw. Ironically, both are performed while the driver is in a sitting posture and are done with a single foot—single-weightedness—and usually the Bubbling Well is just about where the pressure is applied to the pedals by the foot. And the movements that the two pedals cause alternate with one another, acceleration followed by braking followed by acceleration—yang followed by yin followed by yang—until the car returns to its parking spot and reachieves the state of wu wei that it was in before you got in and drove it to the store, disturbing its equilibrium.
Furthermore, we all know that it isn’t the flash of a car’s exterior that makes a superior machine but what’s under the hood. Its power plant. Its chi generator. And the mind of the driver has a great deal to do with how well the car (body) is utilized. An inexperienced or lousy driver will not drive as well as a seasoned and responsible driver, much less a pro, no matter what he’s driving. So, just as in Tai Chi, the quality of the driver’s intent and control are more important than the flash of the car’s exterior or even the power under the hood. Though the latter certainly makes things better, ultimately, the best drivers are those for whom the car becomes an extension of the body, just as it is said that weapons, such as swords and spears, become extensions of the warrior. Ideally in both cases, the person thinks the thought of movement, and the extension follows that thought through a successive chain of actions that align perfectly to produce an aggregate result.
And just as with driving, the process of Tai Chi becomes automatic, most often occurring without conscious thought. If you're like most drivers, you've experienced the awakening that occurs after driving for some time then suddenly realizing you don't remember a thing about the last ten minutes. The awakening is because you're thankful to still be alive. Thank goodness your instinctual mind was in control, because your conscious mind sure wasn't! Tai Chi is similar in that if you use it without thinking, you're probably just as thankful.
If the engine is the power plant of the car (its generator of force and chi), we also need a way for that power to be manipulated to affect acceleration and drive the wheels (the feet). That manipulation is accomplished by a combination of a universal joint (U-joint) and a differential gear. (Figure 2) The former provides a flexible connection from one drive shaft to another—such as from the pelvic area to the torso—and the latter is a gear device that can transfer rotational energy from one drive shaft (the spine) to two axles (hips/legs) that are at right angles to the drive shaft. This is the same kind of U-joint and differential gear arrangement that comprises the waist and hips, only in the case of the body, the feet torque the spine, torso, and ultimately arms through the differential gear and U-joint instead of the other way around.
Also, in addition to using mind to direct the vehicle or body, the driver and Tai Chi Chuanist both must possess an open sort of awareness that takes in one’s surroundings without specific focus. With driving, we look ahead, out the side windows, and in our rearview mirrors with a constantly shifting gaze that tends to soft-focus in the middle distance when not briefly pausing on specific targets. Our ears are attuned for any of dozens of sounds that could signal a problem or crisis. Our noses are all too aware of the odors of burned rubber, oil, and that cloud of incompletely combusted gasoline from the car ahead that you were just forced to inhale. And through the steering wheel, our hands register the contours of the road beneath. These all are just as the Tai Chi Chuanist “listens” with his or her skin—and every other organ of perception—to the energy of the opponent.
And finally, both Tai Chi and driving are dynamic undertakings with a few rules in common. First is to be rooted. As drivers, we all know not to uproot our vehicles by leaning them too far one way or another, particularly right in the middle of a dynamic maneuver, or by starting or stopping too fast. If you do, you’re liable to take a fall. Second is to be relaxed. A relaxed driver is more capable of observing the surroundings and responding to them than is one who hunches rigidly over the wheel and whose very stiffness inhibits the ability to observe and react to the surroundings. And, both exhibit the need for an upright, seated posture that facilitates movement that originates from the core of the body.
I once thought I could find poetry anywhere. Eventually, I learned I was wrong, but even so, it’s in a lot of places. Same with Tai Chi. Like outside in my driveway.
Figure 2 The mechanical transmission of power in a car requires a universal joint (top) and a differential gear (bottom). The former provides a flexible connection to transfer rotational energy from one shaft to another, and it functions similarly to the connection between the pelvis and the spine. The latter transfers rotational energy from a drive shaft to two axles that are at right angles to the drive shaft, and it functions similarly to the connections of the hips to both spine and legs.
Figure 1 My car, like me, is a little beat up but still headed down Tai Chi Chuan Drive.