A Tai Chi Chuan form

"The Repulse Monkey Movement is particularly good for opening the mingmen (life gate) point on the spine which is opposite the dantian...[it] helps to stretch out the tension in the lower back..." - Scott M. Rodell

"The general who...retreats without fearing disgrace, whose only thought is to protect his country and do good service for his sovereign, is the jewel of the kingdom" - Sun Tzu

"Thus the superior man keeps the inferior man at a distance, not angrily but with reserve" - I Ching, hexagram 33

It begins in childhood. There's this little tyke, tottering on unsteady feet, with Mum or Dad crouched down in front of them, calling "Come on, come to me" in those slightly-baby tones. After the intial few attempts, ending with a "plomp" on its little tush, the child gains in confidence, to great parental delight and pride. From crawler to toddler in several uneasy steps. Of course, there are those parents who treat it all like a race - their kid has to walk by age nine months, or it's somehow retarded, or they have failed as parents.

After that, of course, it's all downhill. The kids enter the "terrible twos" and start pushing at the envelope, exploring the boundaries, and before you know it, they're leaving for college while you're sitting bereft in the drive, eating dirt and fretting over your poor baby, going out into the big, bad world. And of course, we've done everything we can for them, haven't we?

...turn the palm of the left hand down. At the same time, bring the left hand up to the left side of the chest, then turn the palm to the front. Push straight forward with the left hand and shift the weight to the back [foot]. At the same time, bring the right hand down to the right side of the hip, with the palm facing down. The left knee is straight, the left toes up, and the right knee bent; weight is on the right leg...†

Never Give Up, Never Surrender

Throughout our lives we are taught that we must always be making progress. The world will rush off and leave us behind if we as much as pause for a moment.

From the point when we take our first steps, we're encouraged to have a philosophy of "no going back". Retreat is seen as a weakness, withdrawal almost a sin. All our lives, we are pushed to achieve - throughout school, in sports, at university, in our jobs. Careering through life, so to speak, we are expected to overcome every problem and adversity, and win, win, win. Because of this, we develop stress and depression and get ulcers and develop dependencies on everything from work and play through alcohol and drugs. We need control over ourselves, because we're taught from early on that we need to be achievers, go-getters, and what we become is overachievers.

Striving to achieve everything, sometimes this driven soul may also achieve anxiety. Now picture this type, suddenly backed into a corner. All their lives they've driven themselves forward, ever forward, and suddenly, they are faced with a foe they cannot defeat. Panicking, they lash out, become vulnerable, stressed, exhausted.

In Tai Chi Chuan, the student is taught not to resist, but to yield. In this way, a less-skilled opponent may either overstretch themselves or become exhausted, at which point, the Tai-Chi student can easily overthrow them. The essence is not about strength, pushing, progress, but controlled yielding, gaining an understanding of the adversary's weakness.

...turn both palms up at the same time. Raise right hand to chest and turn right palm facing front. Step back with left foot and bring left hand to left side of hip while pushing forward with the right hand. Right knee and right arm are straight and right toes are up. Weight is on the left leg...

Yield and overcome

The three Chinese characters used are Tao Nien Hou, variously translated (usually variants on "step back to repulse monkey" and my favourite, "step back like a retreating monkey"). The move is a controlled retreat, stepping back and planting the back foot firmly, and leaving the front foot free to act. The hands alternate in pressing forward to repel an opponent, and being ready to strike. But no action is taken - this is about defence, watching and waiting. "Waiting is", said Michael Valentine Smith, and the waiting is good. Yin and Yang are balanced perfectly, and if an opening presents itself, then one is ready to strike.

According to author Da Lui, this movement contains the essence of the 33rd I Ching hexagram Tun - and gives opportunity to gain control, for the "superior man" to reserve strength while the inferior wastes energy.

...turn right palm up, at the same time, raise the left hand up to the chest and turn the palm facing front. Step back with the right foot and bring the right hand to the right side of the hip, while pushing forward with the left hand. Left knee and arm are straight and left toes are up...

"Voluntary retreat brings good fortune to the superior man"

Think of the word "retreat". What does it mean to you? Defeat? Arguably the best-known and greatest ancient strategist, Sun-Tsu said "If we do not wish to fight, we can prevent the enemy from engaging us". There is no shame in stepping back, if in doing so you prepare to survive the aftermath. Even if he attacks you, defend and observe until he makes a mistake, then strike. But even then, there is no need to attack - sooner or later they will expend all their energy, and retire.

Tai-chi student, observe where your hands and feet are. Your feet are at shoulders-width, you are balanced, relaxed. You are walking backward, but facing your opponent, hips and shoulders square and facing forward. As you step back, your hands are ready - one keeping your assailant at arm's length, the other poised at your waist, ready to strike into abdomen, solar plexus or ribs if his guard drops. Yin Yang are in balance.

Now consider the other meaning of "retreat" - a place and time for quiet and meditation, to withdraw from the world for a spell, to replenish energy, to allow time to work its subtle magic. For many people, a few days or weeks of quiet asylum have become part of a cycle of healing, rebuilding, gaining strength.

Whether that is prayer, meditation or replenishing chi, you are far from the madding crowd, keeping the world itself at arms length. Take the quiet time, the healing potion of wind, forest, silence.

...can be performed as many times as space permits.

† Simmone Kuo, Long Life Good Health through Tai-Chi Chuan
Everything I Ching
Sifu Jim Clingingsmith R.I.P.

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