Tai Chi and Men

As a followup to yesterday's post on tai chi and women, I thought I would address some of the particular challenges facing men as they approach learning tai chi.

Although tai chi practice is, generally speaking, harder on women from an emotional perspective, men face a number of physical challenges in performing tai chi correctly.

Stories of male tai chi masters, like this article from Paradigm Publications, on "The Old Men of T'ai Chi," often emphasize the mystery and paradox of becoming a male tai chi practitioner in the way they describe the bodies of the masters. Of Professor Huo, a tai chi master, the author writes,

He was soft and gentle, yet something about his body gave the appearance of being carved from stone. 

Of another master, the "Dragon of Morse Avenue Park," the author writes,

I saw an old Chinese man with a cane and a straw hat approaching. He looked very frail and the hair in his nostrils and his two front teeth gave the appearance of an old dragon that had lost his fire. I wondered how this could possibly be a T'ai Chi Master. This old man looked as if he had trouble standing and I was sure that if the wind came in too briskly off Lake Michigan, he'd be blown across the park. 

Later, the writer gets the chance to practice tai chi alongside this man:

I stood behind him, knowing we were to begin doing the form. As he prepared, this frail old man began to expand and as he expanded he got straighter and straighter and smiled more and more. Everything about him brightened, and then he began to move. To this day I have never seen anyone move as smoothly, softly, or beautifully. This old man moved as if he had no bones. 
After we finished the form, he laughed and beckoned me to do "push hands" with him. Now, push hands is a T'ai Chi exercise usually done with two people. I was amazed. His skin was as soft as a baby's, his muscles were completely relaxed and his fingertips glowed fire-red and his eyes glimmered. We touched hands. I felt something I had never experienced before, no bones.... He seemed to disappear from my touch. All of a sudden, in the midst of a very slow circling movement, I lost my balance and was lifted up slightly off the ground. As I went back, I thought I'd try and see if I could get the old man. I didn't. To this day, I never have.  

I'll let you read the rest of that story yourself, so you can see how it turns out. It's interesting!

One way to think of this strength-with-no-bones is to think of a cat. Most cats have an amazing amount of flexibility. If you pick one up, he might feel a little bit like a large, furry noodle in your hands. But when it comes time to fight, cats can strike incredibly hard. There is a lot of power behind those little paws!

So, how to do you go from being Joe Regular to developing no-bones softness and chi power?

It isn't easy. My point here is that men beginning their tai chi practice have a lot of bodily habits to change, discard, and consider. Most men, even if they are not actively training their muscles through activities like weight lifting, carry a lot of tension in their muscles. Almost inevitably, this muscular tension reflects inner tension.

When it comes to performing the movements of tai chi, men often try to "muscle through" techniques at first. While both men and women can have trouble grasping the idea of using the natural structures of the body rather than muscular strength to perform movements, I find that men often struggle more with relaxing the muscles. This is especially true when learning how to apply movements. When presented with resistance, men are more likely to resort to hard muscular tension than to rely on correctly performing the move to get them through.

Tai chi can also give men trouble in the area of flexibility. Many of the movements of tai chi require quite a large degree of flexibility in the hips and pelvis. I'm talking about the kind of deep sitting that Paul Carlos of the Sacred Spiral school in New Zealand demonstrates in this video.

While movements like snake creeps low and the deep sitting (what we call dan yu) Carlos performs here very obviously require flexibility, it might surprise you to know that each and every movement of the tai chi set involves a similar opening of the pelvic floor, turning and opening of the hip joints, and dropping in the low spine. For most men, because of the conformation of the pelvis and the relatively tight nature of the tendons and muscles, especially in this area, building this kind of flexibility is much more challenging than it is for most women.

At the same time, stretching and opening the pelvic floor and hips is of the utmost importance for men's health, and will help protect prostate, reproductive, and urinary tract health by increasing circulation throughout the pelvis.

The key to this aspect of practice is understanding how to stretch and open these areas without straining, and how to release tension through movement rather than create it. Once you understand how to begin the opening and stretching process, diligent practice will help enormously in helping you create a softer, yet stronger and healthier body, at the same time as you learn to release stress as it arises. Unfortunately there is no short cut through the hard work you'll have to do to achieve softness and flexibility, but the more you practice, the better and better you'll feel.

Tai Chi and Women

Like just about every other male-established institution in the west, the martial arts world has yet to decide whether it's totally comfortable with women participants. Of course, individual schools and teachers vary widely in terms of how accepting they are of women students, how willing they are to train them, how far they'll allow them to go, and whether they'll train them equally alongside male students.

I know this topic is a bit of a can of worms. For every woman who has suspected that her male sparring partners go too easy on her, there's another who suspects that she's getting put through the ringer a little extra hard. For every woman who is treated like a freak because she likes to fight, or wants to train, or desires, more than anything else, to experience the profound depths of meditation, there's another who is given nothing but respect for these pursuits. There might be a few of you, men and women alike, reading this and thinking, "Wait a second - isn't feminism over? Didn't we already go through this? Of course men and women can both do martial arts." More than likely there are a bunch of you also thinking, "But women just aren't as strong as men. They can't fight as hard or train as hard. Full stop."

Because I train in tai chi, where the main rule of sparring is, the softer you are, the better you fight, you would think that women would dominate the field. And it is true that if you go into any tai chi class in North America, you'll probably see many more women students than you will men. Because most women don't have the same upper body strength as men, are more open in the hips and pelvis, and have softer muscles in general, you would think we would be naturals when it comes to tai chi, which requires you to use the naturally strong structures of your musculo-skeletal system to apply techniques, rather than using sheer muscle power.

Even so, in the group I train in, even though women far outnumber men in the class as a whole, if you look at people who have achieved an advanced level of training, men are very well represented. Our group has also seen quite a few women who were on the path to excellence suddenly drop out, or choose to step back their training, or decide to switch to a less intense class with less knowledgeable instructors.

But I'm not the first one to notice this phenomenon. Chris M. at the awesomely comprehensive, hilarious, and amazing Martial Development, asks the question, "Why Are Female Martial Arts Masters So Rare?" He observes:

I have attended classes where men outnumber women 10-to-1, and I have attended classes where women outnumber men; in both environments, the average female student seemed to absorb and master new material faster than the average male.

But he later notes:

Despite all this, the male gender holds a trump card: willingness to expend overwhelming effort towards mastery of an impractical skill. Am I right, ladies and gentlemen?

This is a good question, and I suppose there's some truth to his proposed solution to this conundrum. There are a lot of other factors that could be at play here.

Privilege is the most obvious one. Omnia vanitas, one of the commentators on Chris's post, pretty much nails this point to the wall, and I couldn't say it any better:

I just want to say that the reason there are so few female martial arts masters is the same reason there are so few black philosophers or politicians. Bigotry. A history of bigotry. Women under the oppressive conditions of male supremacist patriarchy are valued more for their sex appeal–for how they can please men–than for who they are as a human being or for their skills. It’s total bullshit, but there you have it. If you don’t believe me, go ahead, google “female ninja” and see what images come up. Or go to youtube and search “amazing female athletes.” It’s propaganda and it’s time it stopped.

There's another reason why women can hit a wall, especially with a soft martial art like tai chi, beyond institutionalized sexism and its ravages. It has to do with the energy composition of men and women, and what happens when you begin to work on projecting energy from the inside out, especially if you're working with yang energy.

Men and women are composed differently on an energetic level. While both genders (like every single object in the material world) contain yin and yang energy, men carry their yang energy on the outside, while their yin energy is on the inside. Women are the opposite: yin on the outside, yang on the inside.

Women are like a steel rod inside a pillow; men are like marshmallow in a steel drum.

What this means is that when it comes to certain techniques, like learning how to apply an effective strike with yang energy, women have to move the energy from the inside out. You know what you tend to hide on the deepest innermost levels of your being: the dirtiest secrets, the nastiest memories, and the deepest, most profound shame and self-doubt. These stale, stagnant emotional energies are inevitably intertwined with the yang energy you're trying to conjure in order to perform techniques. To advance in tai chi, you have to confront all this crap.

Every single woman I know, including myself, who has trained intensively in tai chi, has hit an emotional wall. For a lot of us, that wall meant anxiety symptoms, profound emotional upset, panic attacks, and generalized horrible feelings every time we practiced.

How did we get through it? Sheer perseverance. I cried it out, and then kept practicing. Other women who I've taught or who were learning alongside me and my peers had the benefit of knowing those of us who had hit the wall and gotten through it.

Once you're on the other side, you've faced your demons and sent them packing. You're on much more stable ground, and you know you can move forward. That's when you can really begin to kick major boot. Getting to the other side is a matter of being gentle with yourself and knowing it will pass.

So, for those women out there who are contemplating quitting tai chi because you're hitting the wall, or you're wondering about why so few women in your class truly excel, or you want to know what the tai chi path holds for you, I say:

Keep going. Keep training. Be soft, be focused, and push through. Whatever comes up that's negative, project through it, and let it go. The wonderful thing about tai chi is that it's not therapy: you don't have to comb through every negative emotion in order to get rid of it. You can just allow it to pass through.

What lies on the other side is so, so good.

To any male instructors or students who are watching female students or peers slip away: remember that, while tai chi may be much harder for men in terms of developing flexibility and performing techniques correctly, generally speaking it is harder on women emotionally. Understand where your female students or peers are coming from, and respect that their journey may be different from yours. If you let them train, and help them continue to move through the angst, you'll be gaining powerful allies as you walk the path together.