I met a long term Aikido practitioner recently who had a deep faith in his art. You could say it bordered on woo-woo, though when I pressed him he admitted that dojo practises was a long way from the dynamics of resistance and was unlikely to reflect the reality of violence with only one consenting party.
He talked about how Aikido is often conflated with mechanics, but really the body shapes were not mechanical but best allowed ‘the energy to flow through you’.
I have a lot of objections to that last statement, and also an appreciation for it. I’ll set aside the objections for now.
There is something more than mechanical about the postural requirements of Aikido, or Taiji or Bagua.
It’s not that we do not use mechanics to move objects (including ourselves) through space, but we do not necessarily experience our movements or ourselves as mechanical. Yes, we can train ourselves to understand angles, and leverage and be more effective at various tasks through this understanding.
That’s not our first experience though. Have you met anyone who after learning a couple of Taiji postures turned to you with their eyes beaming to say ‘I just understood angular momentum’? Me neither.
How do people describe their first immersion into Taiji or Bagua or Qigong? What words do they use?
They talk about calm, peace, stillness, balance, poise, lightness, sensitivity, ease, energy, aliveness, harmony, clarity, depth, flow, centredness, connection, oneness.
Aside from any martial use the postures, or postural guidelines and way of movement seem to have the effect of ‘untangling our being’.
You start (on a not so good day) feeling tight, stressed, out of harmony, off balance, nervous, worried, insecure, distant, incapable and so on. Then as your body moves to meet the requirements, well the magic happens.
The postures and movement give a sense of capability, of being ready, they have majesty, power and lead to a sense of contentedness that is not complacent.
You may not be king of the world, but you are at harmony and one with it.
This is something that need not have anything to do with the martial side of these martial arts.
Nobody really knows how this transformation happens. My investigations suggest that it can be explained in terms of standard biology with no need to refer to magical or supernatural forces that confer special powers. You don’t need to believe in qi (as it is commonly explained) to enjoy the benefits.
It does feel pretty special though. In some ways it’s not surprising that it leads to or attracts people who can be somewhat woo-woo in their beliefs. Woo-woo beliefs seem to exist across cultures, I guess they are comforting.
I want to to return to the phrase ‘untangling your being’. Being is about identity, about who you are or think you are. There is a side to Chinese martial arts that can be likened to cosplay or role-playing.
Some practitioners take delight in dressing up in uniforms, cutting or growing their hair or beards and diving into whatever aspect of their vision of Chinese martial arts attracted them, whether upright kung-fu hero, mysterious sage or rogue adventurer (this is not a sum total of the possible roles, there could be many more). I have known teachers and students whose accents changed while in the context of class.
If this seems like childlike, that’s because it is. Children do lots of dress up, create fantasy worlds and characters. Part of if it is an exploration of what’s possible, of who they can become.
As adults we have not finished becoming, our identities change and do not remain fixed. If they do something usually breaks when life contradicts who we thought we were. The champion athlete is beaten, the industrious worker needs a rest, the selfless caretaker needs time for themselves, the lovers become parents and the parent’s children grow up and leave.
I have listed some of the changes of identity that happen naturally in a normal life, if there is such a thing as a normal life. Some people will find in their practise place where they can step away from what is too common but I do not like to think of as normal. People whose sense of self has been warped by abuse, whether emotional or physical, deliberate or mistaken, long term or acute.
While the dress up and role play that you find in Chinese martial arts might sometimes be immature escapism, it could also be the scaffold for a new identity to grow into, it is a loosening up of what is possible to be.
The end result is not necessarily a fully fledged real life martial knight, or sage or ninja but simply a human who shaped themselves into a person with a wider capacity for useful action and self acceptance than their circumstances pushed them into.
The class is like a safe testing place for the new person, the new sense of self, the capacity to breath into a body and mind that does not feel tangled or crushed or shrunken.
This is clearly not a straightforward process, and unconsciously using a martial art for this purpose is not without possible hitches and complications.
Sometimes we need a kick in the arse to bring us to our senses. Sometimes we need peace, sensitivity and kindness. Chinese martial arts with the combination of power and softness holds the offer of both.
Of course knowing which one we might need when is another story. Please bear this in mind as you get to know classmates.