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.


Pat said...


I also read parts one and two of your getting into Tai Chi, so I feel you are qualified to answer my question.

I am a 57 year old man, with minor nexk and basck injury, and I want to get into Tai Chi at the Taoist Tai Chi center here in Sarasota, FL. I have read much controversey about the Taoist orginazation, mostly by those who have not been there at all. I do not know what I want out of Tai Chi but feel hesitant to attend Taoist classes. How do you feel about it.


Pat OBrien

Dr. Melissa Smith said...

Hi Pat,

Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

I would be happy to give you my opinion, but I would rather do that via email and not in this public venue. Please drop me a line via email at smithmk2@gmail.com so I can answer you directly.