REVIEW Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain: the Essence of Tai Chi

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l Chung-Liang Haung’s Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain: the Essence of Tai Chi is not typically recommended for students of Systema, however, its unique approach to Tai Chi contains useful insight for any practitioner who emphasizes form and technique over free movement. To summarize, Embrace Tiger is a synthesis of Eastern and Western modes of thinking and learning; however, it also attempts to redefine how readers relate to Tai Chi in practice. The phrase “Essence of Tai Chi” adequately describes Al-Haung’s teaching method because he breaks down Tai Chi to its simplest and most universal form. As a result, Embrace Tiger is slow, cautious, and contemplative.

If Al-Haung’s text is read casually, the reader will very likely walk away with little or nothing in return. His text must be treated like an art form itself; and art often requires a vivid imagination, sharpened by a focused mind. Because Al-Haung presents the material of his book as if the reader is present at a summer getaway, he indirectly encourages readers to visualize his instruction in their minds. Since one cannot possibly read and simultaneously practice good Tai Chi, the reader must visualize themselves along with Al-Haung on a secluded resort, imitating what they read only in their heads. This practice is often referred to as the “Mental Movie Method.” When the imagination works through a visual exercise slowly and cautiously, it is common for muscles to twitch as if they want to move alongside the mind.

Al-Haung says that Tai Chi “is what it is” (38). In other words, there is no right or wrong way to perform Tai Chi because it has many different manifestations. The form is only one manifestation that makes up Tai Chi. As such, Tai Chi can be practiced in the mind as well as in the body. This practice is extremely useful, especially for beginners who struggle with the form. After all, one of the most difficult aspects of learning the Tai Chi form is to get out of the head and let the body guide through muscle memory and natural movements. Early practitioners let their minds get ahead of their bodies so they can anticipate the next move. If their minds forget, (and the mind most certainly will forget,) their bodies will stumble forward like a person who has forgotten how to walk.

The mind must always be rooted in the present while practicing.

Visualizing the Taiji form in the mind, slowly and gracefully, trains the mind to move along with the body (not ahead of it.) Why? While imagining the form, the mind cannot think ahead, it must always be in the present movement. In Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain: the Essence of Tai Chi, the form is never described in its entirety. Instead, the form is practiced slowly, without breaking the form into pieces, and without thinking about the technique. In fact, Al-Haung explains that the moment a practitioner begins to think about what they are doing, they are no longer practicing Tai Chi. He describes it as if it is a natural process that is born within a person and then grows into his own “Tai Chi.” Consider the same process while working through Russian Systema.

At first, it appears that Al-Haung’s Tai Chi is a deeply personal experience, but then he introduces a number of exercises that develop the interaction between the self and another person. For example, one exercise requires two students to lightly touch fingers and move their arms together in a circle, simulating ying and yang. They might also touch their partners elbow to complete the image. As their hands move together the student focuses on the slightest pull or energy that his or her partner gives off and follow it. Another example is how often Al-Haung’s students held hands or danced together just to share the excitement of free movement or interaction. Communicating with another person properly through touch is the first hurtle in martial arts towards good work.  For whatever reason, adults carry a lot of tension in regards to “playing,” wrestling, rolling on the floor, touching another’s arms and face, or being touched by others in those places as well.

Finally, Al Chung-liang Haung’s Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain: the Essence of Tai Chi is a great complement to Systema practice because it reminds students to practice slowly, to focus on the principles, to avoid getting caught up in thought, and “just move.” Learning by Principle is not unique to Systema and there is reason to believe that principles will bring students closer to the essence of all internal arts, which is to “know the self.”

“Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.” – Matsuo Basho

Systema will be unique for everyone. Incorporate practice into daily life and make it your own.

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