One day at lunch I pointed out a deficiency of our training to Master Chen.
“There is no stretching in the foundation exercises,” I said.
Master Chen’s eyes narrowed and he growled, “We don’t sell vitamin pills, either!”
The need for vitamins, he went on to explain, indicates an imbalance in the body. It shows you have a problem, and the problem is not fixed by pills. Taiji works to bring the body back into alignment with nature. It supports true health.
Master Chen was careful to point out that there are cases where medication is appropriate. If your organs fail, or if you are in a car accident and lose a lot of blood, the natural thing to do is to die. So we turn to medicine, since we are human and we don’t want to die.
I was interested in stretching because my knees had begun hurting in the second week of full time training. I had already asked Master Chen about that. He hadn’t been surprised.
“It is because of your kua and your feet,” he had said. “Never plant your foot.”
He had pointed to a tripod in the corner and said, “Taiji is about relationships. None of the feet is planted to the floor, but the tripod is very stable.”
After that I had payed closer attention to my foot placement, but I also kept remembering some advice I had heard while fencing. Knee problems, they said, can come from tight leg muscles. During the first week of training my leg muscles had definitely become tighter.
If taiji training had caused the muscle tightness then it should also provide an antidote, I reasoned. So I asked about it, and that’s when I heard about the vitamin pills.
I was still skeptical. “Some of the moves of the form–fall and split, for example–require more than ordinary flexibility,” I said.
“Yes,” Master Chen allowed, “but it is not ordinary flexibility.” He smiled to himself, apparently pleased with turning my words around to support his position.
He went on. “When I asked Hong about what it means to have an open kua, he said an open kua is a kua that opens. You could have an eight year old girl who can put her foot above her, and her kua is not open. You can have an eighty year old man who can hardly move and his kua is open.”
He paused, then emphasized this point. “Taiji is not about flexibility. It is not about flexibility, or strength, or speed.”
I decided to take is word for it. I spent the next week being careful to allow my feet to pivot and relieve stress from the knee. I didn’t go too low while doing the form. Gradually my hip joints became more active, allowing my posture to adjust without torquing the knee. My knees didn’t get any worse. Gradually they became better. Now, after five weeks, they seem fine.
Maybe Master Chen knew what he was talking about. Or maybe I was just lucky. Either way my knees work and I can keep training. I’m satisfied.