The case against T'ai Chi for special needs and falls prevention
"T'ai Chi for special needs" is not T'ai Chi.
"T'ai Chi for falls prevention" is not T'ai Chi.
Now that all the jeering and booing has subsided, I'll explain why.
If someone devised a programme of Western Boxing for people with special needs and took all of the punching out in the process, it wouldn't really be Boxing anymore, would it? All of the actual Boxing would have been removed, so it would be incredibly deceitful and patronising to try to still call it Boxing. Yet this is precisely what has happened to T'ai Chi during the last few decades.
Will the real T'ai Chi please stand up?
T'ai Chi (or to give it its full name, T'ai Chi Ch'uan) is a 350 year old full-blooded fighting art, or at least, the real T'ai Chi is. Traditionally, the art has always contained differentiation into hard and soft movements, fast and slow ones, attacks and defenses, long power throws and short power strikes - that's what the words T'ai Chi mean - literally differentiation into "greatest extremes," If you take the Ch'uan (boxing techniques) out, you destroy all of the T'ai Chi in the process.
Where "falls prevention" falls down
If people notice that certain aspects of T'ai Chi training (or, for that matter, Karate or Soccer training, Indian dance or Mime Artistry) can be useful for preventing falls among elderly people, great - isolate those aspects and build a specific falls prevention programme based on and totally centred around those aspects. But don't then call it T'ai Chi because it isn't. T'ai Chi wasn't designed for falls prevention and falls prevention work isn't designed for fighting with. If you call T'ai Chi, "falls prevention" or vice versa, it reduces both.
You could probably devise an even better falls prevention programme if you allowed yourself the freedom to draw from other disciplines too, perhaps Yoga, Alexander Technique, Pilates or even aqua-aerobics. You could then devise the best possible falls prevention programme for the job, custom built to serve that purpose and that purpose alone (just as T'ai Chi Ch'uan was designed solely for the purpose of fighting).
Not just T'ai Chi
The way T'ai Chi, (or virtually any Chinese martial art practised properly) can help with falls prevention is by developing leg strength and by training correct knee-toe alignment and a proper gait. Moving slowly and walking in a totally non-ballistic manner with your back straight, while smoothly transferring your weight in a slow and steady fashion greatly improves your balance. All well and good, but that's not T'ai Chi.
In fact, T'ai Chi is not the only Chinese martial art that practises walking, stepping and moving slowly - you could just as easily learn Yiquan, Liuhebafa or Baguazhang. But please have the decency to give the arts their due respect by remembering that they are all fighting systems too.
Hard and fast rules
The original Chen style T'ai Chi doesn't actually move at a slow and steady pace all of the time. Many practice the art with dynamic changes between slow and fast explosive movements. Almost all Chen stylists practice an additional highly explosive second form called Pao Chui. Many of the traditional martial Yang style schools have also retained fast forms in addition to slow ones.
Slow movement is only one isolated T'ai Chi training method and it is actually employed by a number of different Chinese martial arts. Moving very slowly helps you to develop strong and stable stances, while finely honing your body mechanics. But you must train at faster speeds as well, or you render the style ineffective for training fighting ability and for obtaining significant health benefits. Zheng Manqing said "T'ai Chi form practice that ignores practical application bestows health benefits that are artificial at best."
The whole slowness idea might not have even originated in T'ai Chi. It is my personal belief that the most apparent differences between the original dynamic Chen style T'ai Chi and the popular slow Yang style may actually reveal some Baguazhang influences (Yang Luchan is known to have been a friend of Dong Haiquan - the originator of Baguazhang.)
Baguazhang training incorporates martial forms practised within the framework of smooth (even tempo) circular walking meditation practices. There is also an emphasis on always turning to face your opponent as in the Yang style T'ai Chi, whereas Chen style techniques are often practised with a more sideways orientation.
A spade is a spade
I know people will think me callous to point this out, but the great T'ai Chi / Taiji masters of old (Chen Wangting, Yang Luchan etc.) were not special needs workers, or falls prevention workers - they were warriors - soldiers and bodyguards. T'ai Chi was designed for hurting people, rather than healing them. For defending the weak sure - and fighting arts can help to keep you fit, but nonetheless, T'ai Chi was designed purely for combat. So you see the name "T'ai Chi" has already been taken. And its movements have already been taken too - they are fighting methods. That's why some of them have names like "parry and punch," "turn and chop with fist," or "kick with heel". Let's start calling a spade, "a spade;" a falls prevention programme, "a falls prevention programme;" and a fighting art, "a fighting art."
Playing in parks
Occasionally someone might say to us "but I've seen groups of elderly people doing T'ai Chi in parks in China. T'ai Chi is from China and you are English - surely Chinese people should know what T'ai Chi is about better than you do!"
Well firstly, many Chinese people are quite aware that T'ai Chi is a martial art - the big martial arts movie star Jet Li uses it in some of his films. But the stuff being practised in parks is very often not the real thing, and many of the people doing it are actually not doing it very well, just as many of the young men kicking a ball around in English parks are not really footballers. At any rate, linked form sequences were traditionally only a tiny part of a complete T'ai Chi Ch'uan / Taijiquan martial syllabus, so it is hardly the real deal.
You might protest - "well maybe I only want to do the sort of T'ai Chi that elderly people do in Chinese parks." That's fine, maybe you also only ever want to kick a ball around instead of learning soccer. But you wouldn't enroll in a soccer academy to learn how to kick a ball around in a park, so don't expect me to teach you how to do pretend T'ai Chi in a park. If you only ever aspire to be mediocre, you will achieve very little and that is not the traditional Kung Fu / Gongfu way. I fully expect every single one of my students to aim for black belt and beyond.
Imagine you had never seen a soccer / football game before and you visited Britain one summer. As you went through the parks, you could well see the occasional group of boys, or maybe college students kicking a ball around. But could you then say you knew all about soccer? Could you go back to your home country and set up a soccer league? How many players would you have on a side? What would you use for goal-posts? How long should a game last? What constitutes a "foul?" Could you explain the "the off-side rule" to anyone? I haven't a clue what it's about, despite growing up in Britain with a soccer-mad older brother and Julie's best efforts to explain it to me. I guess when you're just not all that interested in something... and that's my point.
Just a fad
Far from traditional, many of the popular "T'ai Chi" or "Chi Kung / Qigong" routines that are being practised in parks today have only been devised within the last few decades and new routines are being devised all the time. People may engage with it for a short while at a hobby level, without really having any great commitment to learning the art in depth and using it seriously for self-defense purposes.
That stuff has little or nothing to do with the T'ai Chi martial art that was practised for around 350 years and is still being practised by a small minority today. That small minority of Chinese martial practitioners is often very critical of the "popular" version of T'ai Chi too. In the words of Sifu James Wing Woo "If there's 1,000,000 people doing Taiji in Tianamen Square, 999,999 aren't doing a damn thing."
The popular fad of doing a bit of "T'ai Chi" form or some "Qigong" in a park, is actually a very recent health fad which only really took off in the 1980's. And there is now growing concern amongst Chinese Doctors that such so-called "health practices" might actually be very bad for you indeed.
A medically recognised condition called "qigong psychosis" results in patients having some very disturbing mental and physical symptoms. Qigong is currently being re-examined with a view that such practises are nothing like as harmless as once imagined. The reason is simple - the exercises are being used with the wrong aim in mind. Localised so-called "qi sensations" were never the traditional aim of such exercises and to become fixated on that aspect can be quite damaging to a person's mental health. If you liked knitting but always got a stiff neck after doing about 20 minutes of it, you hopefully wouldn't start deliberately cultivating that pain. You'd certainly be considered mad if you made such pain the GOAL of your knitting. Yet that is what people have done with so-called "qigong" : they have simply elevated (and even deified) "pins and needles".
Philosophy or religion?
People sometimes criticise my purely martial view of Taijiquan as somehow "Western" or "non-Daoist." I occasionally get e-mails that claim that the "true purpose" of "the Daoist Arts" is some kind of spiritual quest to attain immortality or enlightenment. Quite aside from the fact that links between Taijiquan and Daoism are questionable, I am afraid such a view reveals that their knowledge of Daoism is as corrupted as their view of Taiji.
Original Daoist philosophy (3rd Century B.C.) did not hold with the kind of folklore and superstition that was imported into the Religious Daoist tradition some 500 years later.
From "The Cambridge Illustrated History of China:"
"Daoist religion drew inspiration from the quietistic Daoist philosophy of the Zhou period, but was not simply an extension of it. It drew as well from folk religion (worship of local gods along with exorcistic and mediumistic techniques for dealing with them) and from elite traditions related to the pursuit of longevity and immortality."
Far from concerning itself with notions such as the quest for immortality, the philosophical Daoist tradition explicitly warned against having such ridiculous goals, advising that we simply accept our destinies. The philosopher Zhuangzi stated, "The Way has neither start nor finish, neither beginning nor end. But all living creatures have a start and a finish: they are born, and they die.....The years cannot be reversed, and the passage of time cannot be halted. Bodies grow and decay; they flourish and they wither."
He also said: "Many people believe that simply by caring for the body, life can be indefinitely preserved. How foolish! They should learn that merely caring for the body is not sufficient to sustain life. The body should not be neglected, but nor should it be over-valued."
Liezi stated, "There are four things that do not leave people in peace: trying to live for ever, needing to be known, wanting high status, desiring wealth.....their lives are controlled by the external. But those who accept their destiny do not desire to endlessly prolong life, those who love honour do not need fame, those who reject power do not want status, and those who are without strong desires have no use for wealth... these people live according to internal things."
I look at it this way. Daoist philosophy stated that human beings should try to throw off the trappings of human-ness and return to their animal state. Animals might play-fight quite a lot (just like us martial artists), but they don't meditate or try to live forever with strange breathing exercises. It kind of says it all really, doesn't it?
Just a Westerner
I know that some people will think that as a white Westerner, I have no right to comment on these issues. Some might even accuse me of being critical of Chinese culture. But far from it - I am only trying to do my bit to help restore China's authentic martial traditions. Furthermore, I am only voicing concerns that many modern Chinese people have expressed themselves.
Chinese T'ai Chi expert Hong Junsheng stated that "when dealing with ancient writings we should do away with its dregs. We must selectively accept and reject." We should also "only accept what is useful" and "adopt a scientific attitude."
Chinese martial historian Tang Hao warned us to "Emphasise practicality and renounce embellishment," and to "attack the lineage myth - distinguish real from fake."
So you see, Westerners actually do China a great disservice and a tremendous insult by trying to keep its culture locked in the past and by trying to assimilate and commodify Chinese arts as anything from quaint, Disneyland Orientalism to "alternative" medicine and "Magick". Westerners who are ashamed of or bored by their own history may have fallen in love with all the things they see as "Ancient Chinese", but the educated Oriental scholar knows to be more discerning. The history of Chinese culture is 3-dimensional and complex, containing many atrocities and abominations as well as insights and innovations. Most modern Chinese people, like most people from most cultures, like to take what is useful from their past and keep moving forwards.
A handful of pills
Often promoted as simply being "good for health" in some vague and general way, qigong sets or "qigongs" are taught by the vast majority of Western T'ai Chi teachers in place of any martial content or appropriate developmental exercise.
It is often promised that Qigong sets will "increase your internal energy," but such things are obviously very hard to qualify or quantify. Furthermore, the general idea seems to be that as qigong is apparently "good for you," the more you do of it, the better! Now I'm sure if someone gave you a handful of pills, you wouldn't just swallow the whole lot without finding out what each one did, what the proper dose was, and whether there were any contra-indications with regard to taking them in conjunction with each other, so why do so many people exercise no caution whatsoever when practising qigong?
Here in the West, the answer is simple - for many people qigong is a way of feeling a bit stoned or spaced out - a bit like taking that handful of pills. Worse still - they've tried to reduce T'ai Chi to a kind of "moving qigong" too, which is precisely why our once highly acclaimed martial art has been hijacked by hippies, self-styled gurus, charlatans and quacks.
With so much misinformation out there, and so many millions of people practising it completely wrong, we really have a fight on our hands if we are to win back the name of T'ai Chi and restore its former martial glory. Many people have told me that it is nice idea, but it is a fight we can not win. It certainly seems that most mainstream practitioners would rather things stayed as they are. Of course they would - "T'ai Chi for health" will pay for a nice car and a big house in the country whereas genuine martial arts classes are unlikely to ever do much better than pay for the hire of the training hall. And we now have a situation whereby the majority of people who have the gall to call themselves "T'ai Chi practitioners" despise martial arts. Actually some of them reveal how frivolous their involvement in martial arts is by openly calling themselves "T'ai Chi players." You've got to hand it to 'em - they sure know how to play hard ;(
But I for one will not rest until I have done all that I can to wipe non-martial T'ai Chi off the face of the earth, for no other reason than the fact that non-martial T'ai Chi is not real T'ai Chi and I hate dishonesty with a passion.