Is Tai Chi a Yoga?


Can Tai Chi Practice lead to Enlightenment?

Written January 2001 in response to Barry Fishman's article on Tai Chi and Self-Realization.

Yoga: any technique that leads to enlightenment

Let us examine the question: Is Tai Chi a Yoga?

In contemporary Western useage, yoga is a form of predominantly stationary exercises that involve breathing and stretching. However in the traditional Indian sense, yoga is any technique that leads to self-realization or enlightenment. Classic ashtanga yoga leads to enlightenment through ascetic practices - bhakti yoga through worship - karma yoga through good deeds - tantric yoga through sexual practices - or hatha yoga, which leads to enlightenment through physical practices. Indeed any technique can be used as a yoga, a method of enlightenment. In fact, life itself can be a yoga. This is called nisarga yoga, the natural yoga.

Not a yoga

While any yoga can lead to enlightenment, and while any technique can be a yoga, every technique can also 'not' be a yoga. For many, life is not a yoga because their goal is not self-realization. Without the proper intention, life is played out, but is not necessarily a yoga. This is just fine. With the proper intention, life is always a yoga. The purpose of the spiritual Guru is to turn life into a yoga, to enlighten the person to the yoga of their life. Once the person has been awakened, their life becomes a yoga.

With proper intention, Tai Chi is a Yoga

In terms of the original question, Tai Chi can be a yoga, for every technique becomes a yoga with the proper intention. Tai Chi can also not be a yoga without the proper intention. Indeed the techniques of yoga practiced without proper intention are not a yoga. What then is the proper intention? To say that the proper intention is to reach enlightenment or self-realization is accurately ambiguous, leading to the next question, what is enlightenment?

Enlightenment means to transcend the duality of thoughts

In the context of the subcontinent of India from which the concept of enlightenment came, enlightenment has consistently meant transcendence of the duality created by the verbal mind. Whether tantra or ashtanga yoga, sexual techniques or extreme abstinence, the techniques of yoga have always been employed to shed the illusory verbal polarities created by our human brain.

Illusion of Self and Other at the root of the verbal polarity

The foundation of the verbal polarity is the subject and object, which manifests as the concepts of Self and Other. Thus the primary illusion occurs when one identifies with Self. This identification is exacerbated when Awareness stops within this fantasy, becoming the verbal Consciousness, rather than slipping through the cracks, i.e. secret passageways provided by the direct experience of reality.

Some concrete examples . Destroy the notion of Self. not accentuate it

Let’s elucidate these abstractions with some concrete examples. If the intention of Tai Chi is to transcend the verbal polarity, it is a Yoga. If the intention is to become good, then it accentuates the illusion of Personal Self or Ego and is not a Yoga. If Tai Chi is practiced with the intention of transcending Personal Self and the duality that this implies, then Tai Chi is a yoga. If we practice Tai Chi to dominate our environment, this implies that we still believe in the subject and object. Hence our technique is not a yoga.

Simply speaking, if the purpose of any movement at any time is to enhance the illusion of Self, it is not a yoga. Conversely, if it is to transcend the notion of Self, it is a yoga. Hence the practice of Tai Chi can move in and out of being a yoga. Nothing is set, guaranteed, or permanent. Any pride is a roadblock.

Self-realization that we are not our Person. is constantly tested

Self-realization has to do with the understanding that we Beings are not our Person, the Mind-Body Complex. However to write, say or read this means nothing. This realization must be constantly tested through life's work. There is no reason to go out looking, Life's tests come regularly. Most of us are so heavily invested in our Person's life games that external events evoke an internal emotional reaction, i.e. fear, anger, desire, etc., which pollutes our internal body with unnecessary excretions. Any time there is a reaction, this indicates an attachment to our Person. This points to areas that need work.

Tai Chi cultivates awareness

Awareness of these reactions is of paramount importance. Tai Chi practice is one of the supreme ways of cultivating awareness. While practicing forms, we attempt to be constantly focused on the task at hand, rather than letting our mind wander off. On the first level, we attempt to be aware of the forms. On another level, we attempt to be aware when our focus has drifted off.

Group practice also provides life tests

Practicing Tai Chi with a group cultivates a collective awareness. This awareness can be used to constantly clean off the Personal Dust which falls on the clean mirror of our Being distorting and obscuring its reflection of Reality. Group practice also provides life tests, evoking internal emotions, i.e. feelings of inferiority or superiority, aggression or passivity, anger or maybe just irritation. These are displays of Person attachment and need to be dealt with if one is to reach self-realization, i.e. the gut realization that one is not their Person.

Some of the questions that emerge when examining emotional responses are: Am I irritated with the group because I am trying to show off rather than merging with the collective conscious? Am I mad at the Master because I am holding onto my limited knowledge and pride of Self? Am I discouraged because I am trying to win rather than investing in the loss of Personal Ego? These are the type of questions that must be constantly examined and reexamined when dealing with emotional response. However these are purely internal questions and are not to be applied externally to other students or to the teacher.

Emotional reactions block the experience of the non-duality

Besides indicating an ego response, these emotional reactions immediately block the experience of the non-duality. The verbal abstraction of thought separates us from direct experience. Most of us move in and out of the non-duality, the Void. Presumably most of us regularly experience the Void in Tai Chi practice. This occurs when thoughts stop and there is only the Energy Flow, the Process. We lose our Person becoming one with the Flow. This experience of the non-duality is immediately blocked by emotional thoughts because they are normally associated with an endless loop of thoughts, which our Person is attached to. Thoughts in and of themselves don't block the Flow; it is only thoughts that we attach ourselves to, going along with them, rather than letting them go on their own merry way.

Teacher specializes in technique: Master specializes in enlightenment

The point of the Tai Chi Teacher is to teach better Tai Chi techniques to make you a better Person. Many times this furthers the illusion of the Person and hence the verbal duality. The point of the Spiritual Master is to guide the Tai Chi Initiate to the Void, the non-duality. Part of this technique will be to tear the illusion of Person away, stripping off your 'face'. It is important to lose face rather than to save face. We are lucky if we have a Master rather than a Teacher.

Ego loss painful

Because of our tendency to hold onto our Person, we, the students, tend to interpret these actions to tear away our Personal Self, our Ego, as mean, disrespectful, close-minded, or unenlightened. Sometimes the Master will even use anger and disrespect to destroy our Person. Technically speaking the Master is attempting to dislodge Mind Awareness from being stuck in the verbal notion of Person. Because most of us have been stuck in this concept for so long, the process can be quite painful. Indeed because we hold on so desperately to Ego, clinging frantically to the raft which sucks us to our doom, life becomes painful. The Verbal Mind thinks that he is the Master rather than the Servant and doesn't relinquish control without a fight.

Only criterion internal

Because of the ambiguity of external behavior, including apparently unenlightened action, the only real criteria of a Spiritual Master is internal. Does the Master attempt to point us towards the non-verbal reality? Does the Master attempt to tear away our Ego? Is the Master an 'enlightening' influence? Or instead does the Teacher emphasize the fantasies of the verbal brain by encouraging the cult of Person-ality?

Inner Master transcends the Teacher

Although some Teachers tend to magnify the Person and the illusion of Duality, this does not matter as long as the Initiate focuses upon the Inner Master, who speaks with a Little Voice from Quietude. The Inner Master transcends the external Teacher. Thus the student can focus upon the non-verbal reality inherent in Tai Chi and turn it into a Yoga, despite the Teacher. It is possible to transcend the intent of an apparently flawed external Teacher. No need to assign blame. This is only the Ego speaking.

Mastery requires loss of Ego

Further under the doctrine of 'expedient means', even those who are studying or teaching Tai Chi with the wrong intentions will eventually be led to the right intentionality. The attempt to master any discipline will lead to the transcendence of the subject/object duality because the only way to master anything, including needlepoint, is to become one with the work. We must let go of our Personal Self or Ego to reach the highest levels of mastery. In the attempt to be personally 'good', we must eventually leave 'good' behind.

Mastery accompanied by growth in non-verbal awareness

In terms of Tai Chi, mastery of push hands occurs when our Awareness grows to encompass self/opponent and environment in one energy field, The growth of Awareness is encouraged through the cultivation of lightness and sensitivity. If Awareness becomes too localized or Conscious, it is vulnerable. As long as Awareness dwells in the verbal world, we are hopelessly slow in our reactions to our opponent. Thoughts are just too slow. Ego is too localized. Getting dislodged in push hands helps to dislodge the Mind.

Ego growth, a Side effect of Mastery

An unfortunate side effect of mastery is the growth of Personal Ego. As proficiency rises so does Pride in accomplishment in both student and teacher. This is where the Master comes in. The Master simultaneously attempts to suppress Personal Pride and to extend the Ego loss required of mastery into day-to-day, moment-to-moment life. This is easy to say but very difficult to do.

Features that make Tai Chi an excellent Yoga

What features of Tai Chi make its practice an excellent yoga? They are innumerable, but here are a few. It is fundamentally non-verbal; so it exercises Awareness. It focuses Awareness internally; so one is not as distracted by the external world of appearances. It emphasizes circular flow, which encourages Mind's Awareness to move rather than to get stuck in Consciousness.

On the higher levels, Tai Chi encourages the development of yi, mind intent, which can only be achieved with the death of Ego. On the beginning levels, mind intent is interpreted personally. On the advanced levels, mind intent is not associated with personal will but instead with the Universal Will. The ultimate martial artists reach a state of No-mind where they become one with the universe, unafraid of physical death.

Align the Body. realize that you are Energy

Another feature of Tai Chi practice that makes it an excellent yoga is that it aligns the Body. The Mind tends to get stuck in a rigid, dis-integrated Body, furthering the illusion of Person. If the Body is clean, with the Life -Force flowing easily from place to place, then we begin to identify with the energy flow rather than the object, i.e. the Body. Sword practice also transfers our Awareness outside the Body to the tip of the sword. This extension breaks us of the illusion that our Mind is tied to our Body.

Tai Chi masters point to the Path

In summary with the proper intentionality, Tai Chi can be a yoga, a technique for self-realization or enlightenment. With the encouragement and assistance of a Master, internal or external, Tai Chi becomes an excellent yoga for the transcendence of the polarities of the verbal reality.

(This page added after feedback from TCMag)

Is Yoga the Tao of Tai Chi?

For those of us who resist the categorization of Tai Chi as a type of Yoga because of our attachment to popular definitions, let us take another tack.

The word ‘tai chi’, in the general sense, refers to the state of the transcended duality. We in the West tend to think of Tai Chi as a type of exercise, just as we do Yoga. But in fact tai chi is the state between yin and yang, as represented by the 'S' in the yin-yang symbol. From wu ji, the pregnant emptiness, come tai chi, the One, which immediately breaks into the multiplicity of yin and yang. The performance of the exercises named Tai Chi are intended to lead to the state of tai chi, the line between yin and yang - the transcended duality. (While true, most of us who practice Tai Chi do not think about these things, because we are trying to be aware of what we are doing, which is exclusive of thinking.)

In a universal sense Tao means method

In the West the word 'Tao' tends to be defined as The Path or Way - the universal flow. However in a standard Chinese dictionary, 'tao' simply means method. While most things have their own tao, method, the best ones, according to the Taoists are those that align themselves with the Heavenly Tao. According to Lao Tzu, the Tao is nameless, shapeless and formless. We in the West tend to think of the Tao of Heaven when we think of the Tao.

Yoga is the Tao of Tai Chi

In the expanded sense of these three words, yoga is the tao of tai chi. Stated another way, Yoga is any discipline that takes us on the Path to tai chi, the Transcended Duality. The physical forms called Tai Chi are intended to lead us to the state of tai chi. Similarly the physical forms called yoga are also intended to lead one to the state of tai chi.

Words block the Path. Let's do it.

One last cautionary note: Be aware that the verbal reality created by the Author is just a poor approximation, which reflects his personal self-deceptions. I, Being, apologize to all the other Beings, who become distracted by these words. They are primarily directed at overthrowing the tyranny of the Verbal Brain so that we can experience reality directly. These words are not intended to create another mental dictatorship. The proper function of words is to strip away verbal illusion not to create more.

Many, although not all, Tai Chi masters point towards the non-duality, the Void. While not specifically speaking the language of enlightenment, they take us there by putting us on the Path. Focus on the small steps and the destination will take care of itself. Without the neutralization of the verbal Brain and the integration of the Body, what hope is there? Words only encourage the domination by the Brain, while physical practice integrates the Body. The focus on verbal enlightenment is one of the biggest obstacles to becoming one with the Energy Flow.

So let's stop reading and 'Do it.'


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