I am such a passionate advocate of the benefits and beauty of tai chi practice, and so insistent on the ancient art's relevance to modern American culture, that people are often surprised to find that I emphasize the role of traditional weapons in the practice.
"You're a peaceful guy who likes to work in his garden and feed his tortoises," I hear. "You're not about cutting people up. Besides, swords are fun to watch in the movies, but if you want self-defense you'd better buy a gun."
I do indeed live a peaceful life, and I have no delusions either about bringing a knife to a gunfight (although knives can be as effective as guns at close range) or about the practicality of swords and spears and halberds in a world of Predator drones, tactical nukes, laser-guided missiles and the ubiquitous 9mm autopistol. All the same I see great value in working with edged weapons. It's about personal growth. Tai chi trains you the magnificent skill of keeping your physical, emotional and intellectual cool no matter what life throws your way, and the sword is one tool the art uses to do it.
In truth there is an assemblage of weapons in tai chi, a veritable armory that includes a straight sword, a curved sword, a 7-foot long stick with a sword at one end, a spear, a 10-foot pole, and more. At one time they were part of a combat system designed to keep you alive on the dusty, bandit-ridden road. Nowadays they are instruments to measure your equilibrium. They test your ability to handle things that challenge your peace, your self-control and your happiness. Rather than being exotic irrelevancies, in the context of tai chi training these old weapons taunt your equilibrium by substituting for the guy who cuts you off in traffic, the boss who keeps trying to peek down your blouse, the teenager who won't come out of his room, the boyfriend who can't be torn away from the ball game, the mother-in-law who looks for nothing but ugliness, the schoolteacher who thinks your kid is the anti-Christ, or the co-worker who is willing to sacrifice his own career just to see you go down in flames.
That's right, working with a sword helps you handle situations in real life. It does that by forcing your attention inward, by demanding your watch your own moves, each and every one of them, lest you slice off an ear or your nose or your kneecap. Okay, most teachers use wooden facsmiles in the beginning, but you do understand how three feet of sharp steel, or its blunt doppelganger, could really keep your mind from wandering whether it's because you can't stop thinking about how cool it is to have a sword in your hand or because you're worried you'll rend your own flesh. In short, the sword makes you mindful.
Mindfulness is a term much bandied about these days but perhaps not so well understood. Consider it that certain je ne sais quois that turns sex into lovemaking, that makes an event one you'll always remember. Mindfulness can be marked by a specific sense of quiet presence or a response to a certain piece of music or art that allows you to transcend who you are and get in touch with something deeper and bigger. Tai chi demands mindfulness. If you wave your sword around and think about what's for dinner, you're not doing tai chi. In fact, by definition, tai chi departs the moment your attention does, and returns only when you rein that wily, flighty thing back in.
Weapons have traditionally been used as magnifiers of force. Earliest man picked up a rock or a stick and used it to strengthen himself, to increase his deadliness, and to put himself on more equal footing with a lion, hyena or snake. Throughout the course of history, weapons have provided leverage against inequitable situations, including, of course, combat inside the species. These days, working with a tai chi sword has more to do with helping you understand yourself than it has to do with whacking the caveman who stole your barbecued mammoth ribs. We don't carry blades at our sides and wield them against opponents, but we do fight wars every day, verbal skirmishes, financial campaigns, emotional confrontations, and energetic battles. Symbolically, the sharp edge of the sword signifies severing yourself from attachments that drag you down. It represents a tool to free you from your prejudices, your misunderstandings, insecurities and phobias.
I teach a lot of guys who love the idea of hacking things up. Entranced by the power a sharp sword in hand imbues, they lose their balance completely. Rather than having the sword become them, a conscious, intelligent carbon-based life form, they want to become the sword. When the human being drops to the level of an inert, silent, dumb piece of steel, it doesn't look to good, which might be why some of my best sword students are women. I'm not saying men can't learn to wield a sword well, they can and they do, but while many of my female students seem to have an easier time accepting the sword as teacher, as glowing arrow pointing in the direction of those weak places that need focus.
Whatever your gender or age, tai chi can help you find the peace and balance you want in your life. Swords or no swords, the benefits of the practice are many and the beauty, history, philosophy and culture behind it sublime. Perhaps it's time to celebrate spring by getting out to a local park or YMCA or recreation center and finding a tai chi class. Watch those gorgeous peaceful swords sing in the sunlight and see if you don't feel healthy and inspired!