Turning obstructions into advantages

In her final blog, Stephanie Fowler tells us how to retrain the mind-body complex

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If you take any sport, you will find that a large part of the training involves repetition and drilling. Constantly repeating certain movements so that they become instinctive. For on the playing field, in the thick of the action, you don’t have time to ‘think’.

You have to act — and fast. If you think first, more often than not, you will be too late.

Martial art training is no different, with drills – both solo or with another – as well as linking together various movements to create a form, that can be practised repeatedly. This system involves a fundamental rewiring of our instincts, and also our reaction to fear.

When we are afraid, our instincts take over from our conscious mind, propelling the body into action before we have a chance to realise what we are doing. This is known as the stress response, or ‘fight-or-flight’ response.

There is one more response which is potentially even more damaging – the ‘freeze’ response, when we become like a rabbit in the headlights, and find ourselves frozen to the spot with our minds totally blank and the body unable to do anything.

So by constantly repeating certain movements, we re-train our body so that we put in place a new ‘instinctual’ way of reacting. Many people wonder why in Tai Chi Chuan we train so slowly. I am often asked if it is to fight in slow motion. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen a slow-motion fight.

One of the reasons for training in this way is that the bodily requirements in Tai Chi Chuan are very subtle, so if we train quickly, we will miss many of the principles. For example, try relaxing your arms and imagine the joints opening out. Now try moving, keeping that ‘feeling’ in the body. If you find it easy, you’re in the minority.

Gradually, through training, the body starts to absorb the many principles of Tai Chi Chuan. When we can maintain them as we move slowly, we can speed up. The very rapid movements in Tai Chi Chuan are unbelievably swift, using an explosive-like power from the body.

As I explained in my previous piece, we always try and use our opponent’s force against them. It would madness if we were to then use our own force against ourselves by tensing certain muscles, as tight muscles inhibit fast and efficient movement.

While movement is best practised in a solo setting, the correct reactions are best mastered in training with another person. Typically, when we are threatened, we will tense and react ‘against’ whatever we are afraid of. This process occurs in most disagreements as our instinctual reactions work at both a physical and mental, or sub-conscious, level.

When we get fired up and angry, it is often like something else takes over, and we start saying things before actually ‘thinking’ about what we are saying. It is as if fear, even at this level, pushes us instinctively into a reactionary stance that can be ever so damaging.

But when we learn to react with an incoming force, rather than against it, we simultaneously learn how to turn an obstruction into an advantage, and how to move with events and actions around us, rather than against them. This is the wisdom that Tai Chi Chuan brings.

Stephanie Fowler first began learning martial arts in 1992 at the age of 17. Her training in Tai Chi Chuan began a year later. She has trained with many top masters from all over the world, including the current Chen-style lineage holder Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei. She has also practised Qigong and another internal martial art, Bagua Zhang.