Friday 1 April 2011

The tai chi body language

Why is it that Tai Chi postures and body language postures are not the same? As Tai Chi is about natural movements that make optimal use of human biomechanics, it is a natural assumption that having "good posture" would be well communicated through the medium of body language. Indeed this was an implicit assumption that I made when I began (and for a long time afterwards). I subconsciously (for most body language is processed subconsciously) assumed that the best posture to adopt in Tai Chi would be the body language postures connected with strength, health, vitality, attractiveness etc. But this is not the case which is easiest to explain by example:

Considered the military soldier's "attention" posture (which was originally used when lining up with your enemy before a battle) - "chin up, stomach in, chest out", as a sergeant major might shout. This is very similar to the mating posture that humans use to signal attractiveness to the opposite sex - "Hold your head high, puff your chest out, and pull in your stomach to emphasise that sixpack".
Both these postures are designed to convey strength, power and vitality, which is actually what we are attempting to achieve with our Tai Chi training. But the standard Tai Chi posture is the opposite, "Tuck the chin in, let the stomach hang out (so that you can feel like you are sitting down), and hollow the chest so that you can feel rounded in the shoulders)". In other words, Tai Chi postures do not make you look attractive or powerful!
So what are the reasons for the stark difference?

First of all, body language postures are memes, they are learned behaviours. You learn from your parents and from society. Babies and young toddlers for instance adopt stances using principles similar to yoga or tai chi, and indeed you can observe that they breathe from the dan-tien from birth, before they "learn" not to. Society's definition of what is attractive (and hence what you are subconsciously taught to do) can bear very little relationship to what actually has a practical benefit. By analogy, consider the bizarre body appendages of a lot of species that been have naturally selected by evolution for attractiveness, but hamper their daily lives (think peacock's tails).

Another reason is that body language is about communication, moreover, visual communication at a distance. It is about signalling to other people. Tai Chi (and martial arts) postures on the other hand are about practical applications, when you are actually in contact with another person. The result in this case is more important than how it looks. To slightly abuse a phrase, body language is style over function, but martial arts are function over style.

The third issue that occurs to me is this may be why Tai Chi has gained a reputation of being a subtle or hidden art form. What this is really saying is that the body language postures you are displaying when you do it, are not recognised by the general population, and your effectiveness is therefore surprising. What you signal though your body language does not match your practical effectiveness and so could indeed be perceived as deceptive. Perhaps this is a reason that beginners find it difficult to learn, because of the striking contrast with the subconscious body language signalling.

Tai Chi could therefore be said not to be about learning, but to be about un-learning. And what is unlearning, but to return to emptiness?

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your most interesting blog.

    Regarding the question of why soldiers and external martial artists adopt a chest-out posture versus the hollowed chest of the tai chi practioner, my first thought is that they are preparatory poses for their quintessential moves. It is easier for a soldier or police officer to punch or draw a weapons if the shoulders are back. It is easier for the tai chi person to reach forward and then guide a blow into an empty space if his shoulders are already forward.

    What do you think? :-)