Tai Chi is infused with the concept of flow, but what does that actually mean? What does ‘flow’ mean in this context?
We are used to seeing Tai Chi practitioners in parks performing graceful, flowing movements. In fact, that’s what we expect to see whenever somebody mentions “Tai Chi”, but as usual, it’s what’s underneath the water that matters, not what we see on the surface.
The Tai Chi classics state:
“Chang Ch’uan [Long Boxing] is like a great river
rolling on unceasingly.”
This points to the continuous nature of Tai Chi boxing. Techniques don’t really start and stop, they all merge into one continuous movement.
Acquiring this skill in the Tai Chi form is actually quite difficult. For a start, people tend to speed up or slow down during a form performance. They speed up on the bits they like and slow down on the bits they find hard.
Another common fault is posturing – pausing serenely in postures that are being held, if only for a moment. It’s equal and opposite infraction is too much merging – movements get mushed into each other without one finishing properly before the other begins.
I’d say it takes a good few months of continual practice, focusing on just continuity, to iron these faults out of a Tai Chi form
The deeper lesson in continuous movement is that you are constantly recycling the ‘energy’ in the form. When you break a movement, or stop, you are not keeping everything flowing, and you lose the power of momentum. They fall flat.
This links back to the idea of Yin and Yang being in constant flux, with change as the only constant. These ideas are as old as the hills, but find their expression most often in Taoist thought.
In a recent TED talk Adrien Stoloff looks at what Wuwei (The Taoist concept of non-action, and flow) mean.
Adrien discusses flow and wuwei, and how recent research in cognitive neuroscience suggests what may be happening in the brain when we experience flow or wuwei. Adrien Stoloff is a doctoral candidate in Asian Religious Traditions. He is interested in Chinese religious beliefs and practices from the late Warring States period to the Early Han Dynasty (approximately 5th-2nd centuries BCE). Specifically, Adrien’s research focuses on the Classical Daoist phenomenon of wuwei. Translated as “effortless action,” wuwei is a state of being in which one acts effortlessly yet efficiently in a given situation. His dissertation project uses an approach informed by tools in the field of religious studies – textual and historical analysis – as well as by the fields of philosophy and cognitive science:
The dance/fight game
If there’s one martial art that really emphasises the concept of ‘flow’ then it’s Capoeira. The Brazilian dance/fight martial art where two participants enact a kind of spontaneous, improvised martial dance set to music.
Clearly your connection to the other person in Capoeira transcends the physical connection we find in Tai Chi push hands, and it has to be in place or you end up with a foot to the face. That’s Tai Chi’s Ting Jing (Listening energy) on steroids.
Even as an outsider to Capoeira, I can tell when the practitioners are connected to each other, and when they’re not. When the focus is more on athletic ability and directed inwards the two practitioners don’t seem to melt together into one dance – they retain their separate selves. The type of Capoeira I like to watch is where the two practitioners become one – responding and reacting in real time to each other.
And of course, with the rhythm of the music and a focus on connecting there’s all the potential for it to cross over into ‘spirit dance’, where you connect to the wider environment.
I looked for some beginner capoeira videos recently and found these which I thought presented some basic moves that I could copy. I had a go at this video below this morning and I was surprised by how difficult (but also fun) even these ‘basic’ moves are.
I mean, I can do it badly. Anybody can do it badly. But trying to do it with the smoothness and flow that the practitioner demonstrates above is a different matter.
If you wanted to get more ‘flow’ in your movement, I think this could be a good place to start.
2 thoughts on “The concept of ‘flow’ in martial arts”
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I don’t think I agree with the above premise. When you Open and Close you move from one pole/extreme to the other, in an endless sequence, unbroken. It is that unbrokenness that is referred to in terms like “don’t break the silk thread”, Yin-Yang, “don’t break the qi”, and so on. The body has to be connected by the qi-tissues and channels in a smooth way, coordinated by the dantian, for there to be the kind of “flow” that is talked about in Taiji. In a Taiji form, the body goes through a long series of Open and Close “without breaking the silk thread”, and thus by going like a great river through endless Open and Close, the art derives its name of “Taiji”.
The Yang-style claims that they maintain that flow by means of “Pulling Silk” (chousijin) and the Chen-style claims that they do it by means of “Reeling Silk” (chansijin) motion. Most people can’t move via the dantian, as the Chens do (Yang Lu Chan moved in that way because he learned the Chen-style, BTW), so most people talking about “flow” in the Yang-style are attempting to move as smoothly and connectedly as Yang Jun does in his form. A lot of people doing and even teaching the Yang style have any idea about this type of flow. Smooth coordination, as in Capoiera or dance or whatever, is not the same thing as the “flow” of the Chinese martial-arts.