How Doing Taijiquan is Like Flying a Stealth Bomber

Let me say from the very start that this is not an attempt on my part to be cute, regardless of how much the title of this article might seem to support that case. Nor is it intended as simply a flattering comparison of adjectives sometimes applied to both subjects, of which invisible would be the most obvious example. On the contrary, I consider the comparison to be illuminating in a way that is highly enlightening, instructive, and in fact even a bit profound. 

I will start by pointing out the major danger and therefor principle consideration of airplane design, namely that they fall out of the sky and crash. From its very beginning, designers had to fashion almost every feature of an aircraft around this problem, which concerns mainly the question of in-flight stability. In these circumstances (flying), changes in wind speed and direction create completely unpredictable and potentially devastating forces that are far too sudden and powerful for any pilot to anticipate and prepare for, and therefor the plane must include in its very design features that automatically increase stability and minimize the effects of turbulence. 

From the Wright Brothers on, the obvious solution pursued by airplane designers was entirely congruent with the reasoning of the designers of ocean-going craft. The earliest and most primitive ocean explorers utilized the outrigger principle, using the leverage of horizontal extensions to steady the craft against rolling over on its transverse axis. From the outriggers of the explorers of Polynesia to the modern catamaran, this concept has proved a reliable way to achieve steadiness and reduce danger. In the case of aircraft, it adds an additional function to the wings, over and above their duty to provide lift and maintain the flight of the plane in the first place, and this is one of stability. The less immediate control the pilot has over the craft, the greater the need for an automatic tendency to such stability, and a large wingspan is the most obvious solution. Gliders, which, because they are powerless, allow the least control possible, have the largest wingspan, while fighter-jets, because they have the greatest immediately available power and the highest potential acceleration, manage to make out with the smallest. 

This quest for stability has its parallel in the martial arts, especially of the oriental variety, where it is associated with a secure base from which to project force. The sudden and unexpected forces produced by an aggressive opponent are analogous to the buffeting effect of wind, and It does not take a genius to conclude that, in addressing this problem, standing on two feet is a better solution than balancing one’s weight on one. Following such logic, the less equal the proportion, that is, the more the degree to which one is supporting the total force on the body with one foot, the less stable the stance, and therefor the more equivalent the pressure on the feet, the better. This total force is the combination of gravity and the force received from the opponent, whether this force is generated by his aggression or by his resistance to our own. When gravity is the only force applying, the greatest equivalency is found when the center of mass is positioned exactly midway between the two feet. The other two stabilizing influences available to the boxer are the width and height of the stance, and this leads to the familiar wide horse stance. When the opponent directs his force exactly at right angles to the line defining this width, his force is automatically distributed equally, and the geometric positioning is the same as when gravity alone was the only influence. This symmetric horse stance is the most efficient in accomplishing the desired result. When the angle of attack becomes more oblique, equivalency of pressure is only maintained by shifting the center of mass more in his direction, leading to the so-called “bow-and arrow” stance. 

It should be understood that these stances not only fit the definition of double-weighted behavior, they are in fact the source of the original meaning of double-weight. We students of Taijiquan are so used to hearing double-weight referred to as a fault, we might easily overlook the fact that, for a large part of the martial arts world, double-weight is not a fault. It is a method. The legs are performing the same function as outriggers, and creating the most stable and secure platform that any fixed system can provide. I say fixed because, even though there may be a shift from the horse stance to the arrow stance in accommodation of the opponent’s input, the method is fixed in that it seeks always to deposit the resolution of all forces exactly at the midpoint between the feet, and to do so with a structure that is, at least for the moment that it receives force, completely unchanging. 

Now, were I not apprehensive of losing the thread of this little article, I would take this moment to explain in more detail the method that Taijiquan utilizes to address the underlying problem with which double-weighted behavior is concerned, a problem that seems at first glance only solvable through the achievement of greater and greater degrees of structural stability. For the moment, however, I will skip the elaboration of the Taijiquan method (which can be found in other writings), except to say that it satisfies the purpose of double-weighted behavior, not by means of a rival structure, but through a mechanism that is entirely dynamic.

This purpose might be expressed in a variety of ways, depending upon the exact martial art and technique to be applied, but probably its most fundamental rendering is this: that all horizontally applied force, whether produced directly by the opponent or by his resistance to our own application of force, be redirected to the vertical in its reception. The theoretical ideal of this process would be a one hundred percent conversion, which would produce a result that no matter how hard the opponent applied force (or resisted it), it would only succeed in pressing one’s feet that much harder into the floor. It should be noted that no static structure can accomplish this ideal, but some can come closer to it than others. The horse and arrow stances, which, by this analysis, may be seen as simply two versions of the same stance, represent the furthest refinement of such a static structure in terms of human anatomy and posture, and is based for its success upon maintaining a complete equality of pressure between the two feet. 

In contrast to this, the Taijiquan method causes the force to travel in the form of a wave, allowing for its dynamic redirection due to sequential internal readjustments of the body. This allows it to accomplish the ideal of one hundred percent redirection, which results in a feeling of complete effortlessness. This method does not depend upon stability; in fact, it reliesupon constant change, which might be said to be definitive of instability, for its very workability. Instead of equalizing pressure in the feet, it functions with any proportional weight distribution, from complete double-weight to one hundred percent on one leg. Since any permanent structural fixation will interfere with the continual readjustments necessary to the method, it is easy to see that these two methods are in compete contradiction. 

This discussion inevitably leads to a recognition of two equally accepted definitions of the word balance. One definition virtually depends upon the concept of double-weight. When someone talks of “regaining his balance,” he is most often referring to going from dynamic instability, in the form of falling, to a condition of secure and unchanging structural stability, by attaining a static double-weighted position (a perfect equality of forces between the feet). A key element of Taijiquan technique and strategy is based upon the fact that even in the midst of the most energetic and fast-moving fight, an opponent who attempts to exert force by employing even a fraction of his weight to do so, in other words, by leaning, experiences a momentary feeling of instability if this weight is neutralized by simply refusing to provide such support (yielding), and will with absolute reliability revert to this double-weighted condition, even if only for a moment, and even if it is immediately followed by a fast moving display of footwork. 

In contrast to this, the Taijiquan adept’s method is entirely dynamic at all times, and is completely devoted to and could even be said to be partially defined by an absence of leaning. This method is very challenging to understand and time-consuming to learn, and, most importantly, is the only means of addressing the problem of instability and redirecting the opponent’s force to the vertical other than double-weighted behavior. Taijiquan students not acquainted with this method, which I refer to in my writings as airball adherence, and who engage in any sort of competition based upon “pushing” and the resistance to such pushing, are practicing double-weighted behavior, and if they imagine that any sort of meditation or manipulation of qi that they are doing has even the slightest chance of excusing them from this group, they are kidding themselves. 

The most immediate contrast to conventional aircraft noticeable in the stealth bomber is that it seems to have no wings, resembling, more than anything, a flying poker chip. This is because its method of dealing with instability is, like that of the Taijiquan adept, dependent upon constant dynamic readjustment, a readjustment that is severely impeded by any inherent structural stability, provided in aviation by wings, which would, the larger they were, only impede the ability of the plane to respond. In fighting this is analogous to the consistent or even momentary employment of double-weighted behavior. To make a point, these two methods are completely mutually exclusive and reciprocally contradictory. The method of the stealth bomber is only made possible by virtue of the high-speed processing capability of the computer, which can make corrections of thrust and subtle adjustments of shape that the human brain could never be fast enough to execute through manual control. The Taijiquan adept’s method is only made possible by extensive practice in the construction of continuous three-dimensional adherence, which habituates a mental process that eventually operates reliably on the subconscious level, where it operates fast enough to compensate for ever-changing and high-speed activity on the part of the opponent. One reason that Taijiquan practice is so rooted in low-speed activity is that this process of adherence must be first accomplished on the conscious level, only possible at such reduced speed. To follow our analogy here, our brain, like the on-board computer that processes and compensates for random and unexpected forces acting on the stealth bomber, must also be programmed to do so, and the entire purpose and thrust of Taijiquan practice aspires to the installation of such a program. As such, it is a mental practice in a way that is equaled by no other martial art, and requires a training process that is entirely dissimilar. (This process is analyzed in The Theoretical Basis of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, connected to the other relevant practices of the art in the soon-to-be-published Structural Fundamentals of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, and with the curriculum of the Yang family in the nearly completed Methodology of the Yang Style of T’ai Chi Ch’uan.)

Unfortunately, the accuracy of this analogy of Taijiquan to the stealth bomber confirms the rationale behind one of the art’s more possibly annoying requirements, that is, the well-known and fairly universal demand that the student eschew all other martial training. Fighting, certainly at any level of reasonable skill, is highly dependent upon deep physical habits, habits that are required to be deep enough to function even under the strain of possible mortal combat. One great source of misunderstanding of Taijiquan by the general public is the natural assumption that, as with other martial arts, training consists of a rehearsal of what one does when fighting. Tajiquan, by contrast, targets the process by which fighting techniques are constructed, by identifying a universal principle uniting them all, and thereby allowing smaller increments of change in response to the opponent’s attack. Such a process leads to a natural smoothness and grace of movement, just as the increase of the number and the decrease of the size of the sides of a multi-sided figure draws it steadily towards the figure of a circle. Even the use of a solo form is deceiving in that it appears to program into the student’s head the pre-planned and structurally powerful positions and movements that it mimics. In reality, it only provides an opportunity to develop certain unconscious habits that support the very esoteric techniques of yielding, adherence, and discharge. These habits, being completely dynamic, are in complete contradiction to the habits that support conventional and structurally powerful movements and positions. This is not a matter of switching styles, as many teachers of gung-fu would like to assume. Taijiquan is not another style, but a technique that calls for completely  different subconscious reactions. The elements of style can be the subject of conscious choices, but the efficiency of a fighter is dependent upon a reliable set of deeper reactions, and these must not be contradicted, and cannot simply be switched on and off at will. 

In short, one cannot stick wings on a stealth bomber and expect to now enjoy the benefits of both systems. Double-weighted behavior is as natural for the human being to employ as covering one’s head in a storm, and, by contrast, the method of Taijiquan is about as esoteric as they come. If one ever expects to master it, they must reprogram their responses without ambiguity, because, in fighting, such mental ambiguity spells hesitation, and hesitation spells defeat.