The Taiji Cake
When teaching Taijiquan (Tai Chi Chuan), as is the case with many subjects, it is often useful to use metaphor and simile to help explain otherwise difficult to express principles and methods of practice. Some metaphors will resonate more with some people than others depending on experience. If, for example, a student was familiar with motor mechanics then a metaphor likening a taijiquan principle to some aspect of the combustion engine might be really useful. The student will suddenly “get it” even though the same principle had been explained in different ways a hundred times before. A student who had no experience or knowledge pertaining to motor mechanics however might not find the metaphor of any use at all.
Most teachers will probably use metaphors to explain the whole process of learning and teaching taiji. Grandmaster Chen Xiao Wang uses the simile of riding a bicycle for this purpose. When learning to ride a bicycle there has to be a period of falling off, making mistakes, before one finds ones balance. When successfully riding the bike the beginner cannot make tight turns or keep their balance over rough terrain. With practice these problems are overcome. Success only comes with sustained practice. In another metaphor he likened learning taiji to paddling a canoe upstream. Paddle everyday and you make good progress, miss a week and you will inevitably slip back down river. In the process of teaching one might say that ones own role is similar to that of a tennis coach. You might develop a high level of skill and can match your level to any other local teacher but will probably never play at Wimbledon. Learning taiji is like climbing a mountain, we might never reach the top but even if we only progress a little way up we are in cleaner air and have a much better view than down below. The activity of climbing the mountain provides us with exercise.
Hopefully the likening of learning taijiquan to the process of baking a cake then will not be lost on the majority of readers. There are many principles and methods of practice in taijiquan that need to be understood if we are to progress to higher levels in our taiji careers. We could liken these principles to ‘ingredients’ that need to be combined and refined in order to achieve the desired outcome. The Daoists often use the metaphor of the “cooking process” when describing the slow refinement of the mind in meditational practice. In order to make a cake we must first find and have knowledge of the essential ingredients. If we likened two very important principles for beginners that are essential to the learning of Taijiquan, the loosening of the joints (Fang Song) and extending within (Peng), to flour and water then we might say that the combining of these two ingredients in correct proportion might not be sufficient to bake a cake but are enough to make chapatti’s. At least one can now eat a nutritious meal. At first though it might be difficult to work out how to combine the ingredients correctly. Perhaps we use too much flour and not enough water and the chapatti’s are too hard and almost inedible or the reverse where the end result is a sloppy mush. One might overcook (try to forcefully) or undercook (losing focus) with equally poor results. At the beginning our ingredients are perhaps not of the best quality. Ultimately we will find a more refined flour and purer water and produce a better quality chapatti.
With time we are introduced to new ingredients, new taiji principles, that we can add to the mix. Flour, Liquid, yeast, eggs, butter, sugar, salt and fat for example are seven essentials to making a cake. Taiji is similarly comprised of different ingredients. We could take correct posture as one of these. This essential ingredient though includes hundreds of important sub-ingredients, such as head suspension (from Bai Hui acupoint), weight in centre of foot (in Yong Quan acupoint, the ‘Bubbling Wells”), joints open and unlocked, chest relaxed, cupped palms and so on. We must gradually understand and refine many other essential ingredients such as rotating Dantien, opening and closing, internal spirals, mind intent and so on. These again may be comprised of many parts, such as opening and closing of the Kua and spine, correct knee placement, scapula movement and weighted elbows to name a few. With experience understanding the nature of all the ingredients and baking a cake to an acceptable standard becomes achievable. It will take considerable practice though to also become familiar with the correct mixing and cooking procedure to make consistently well made cakes.
Likewise, with the learning of tai chi, it takes considerable time and practice to understand and combine all the essential principles to an acceptable standard of achievement. One could say however that there is only one real principle that one needs to understand, and practice successfully, in order to be competent in Taijiquan, Chansujin (internal spiral movement), which, for the sake of the metaphor, can be considered as the Taiji Cake itself. It might take us a few years to finally bake a cake that is of a desirable consistency and tasty and nourishing and probably decades to become a notable cake maker. Many years of burnt casings and soggy bottoms before we can turn our hands to creating cakes of all kinds. We might say of the great Taiji practitioner, Grandmaster Chen Xiao Wang, that he always bakes exceedingly good cakes.