The Heart of Lightness: A 2004 Letter to My Fellow Students by Mark Bernhard

While I was walking around watching and helping the beginning students with the postures last week I was struck by how hard you all are working and how focused everyone is. I also reflected on my first days and months in class and the frustration, puzzlement, and wonder of beginning practice. In the four years I have been a student of Greg and Ching’s, I’ve seen many people come and go through their classes. After class last week I began to think, “What can I do to help these particular people continue to practice?” I thought it just might be helpful for you to hear from someone other than your teachers (like maybe a fellow student) about his experience learning and practicing Tai Chi.

There are many reasons why someone might be interested in Tai Chi—improved health, balance, relaxation, curiosity. For me it was curiosity. I had done Tai Chi very briefly twenty years ago and enjoyed it but, for one reason or another, never kept it up. It always intrigued me—“What are those millions of Chinese doing in those parks?” My younger son had stopped doing karate when he was 13 (he got his black belt) and, when I saw Greg’s ad in the paper, I thought “Maybe that’s something we could do together” (karate was never my thing). But Tai Chi is definitely not for everybody–he lasted a month (too boring). I remained intrigued.

For me, beginning practice pushed a lot of buttons and raised a lot of questions: “It looks so easy—you’re not doing hardly anything—why is it so hard for me to learn and remember it—am I that dumb?” “I‘ve been walking all my life…. why can’t I do this?” “OK you put your foot here and then your hand goes like this…or was it like THIS?” (Look at the book/rewind the tape yet again). “What AM I doing—am I supposed to be feeling something—what?” Then there’s all the directions: sink into the three nails (what does THAT mean?), let your shoulders drop, let your hands “float,” move from the hips, suspend your head from the ceiling, sit down, let your clavicles “smile,” inhale when you “energize” (again, whatever THAT means), and while you’re trying to do all that…RELAX. Sure. Then in class there’s the confusion and the fear of doing it “wrong,” or “Jeez, Greg’s watching me…why didn’t I practice more this week…screwed up…AGAIN!” (Just so you know, my practice still raises a lot of questions, just different ones, but now I have more confidence that the answers will reveal themselves).

So, one word of advice: Relax. (Yeah, I know). But, really, relax. Because you’re not going anywhere. You aren’t in a tunnel and there’s no light at the end. As convenient as it is to compare Tai Chi to learning a musical instrument or learning the alphabet so you can write poetry, the truth is: no musician plays only one tune over and over and over and no poet writes the same poem twice. So what is it about Tai Chi that people are willing to do apparently the same movements ad infinitum? My advice is to practice and you will see. The reason is that no matter how long you practice, no two 10-minute sessions of form are ever the same. Not tomorrow. Not in four or 24 years. We have all heard the phrase “You can never step in the same river twice.” That exactly describes your practice. Greg and Ching are giving you some navigational skills they have acquired, but it’s your river. As you travel up/down this river, there are many twists and turns, eddies and backwaters, but no rapids to be concerned about. And many pleasurable experiences await you. You just have to watch for them. Generally you won’t see them coming. But in order to continue you have to get in the river regularly; you have to practice. My advice is: at least 20 minutes a day. If you can’t do that, try 3 days a week. The important thing is to keep doing it. Your practice is a gift you give yourself: the gift of feeling, not thinking, of experiencing without judgment. I know it doesn’t seem that way when you’re beginning and trying to remember all that stuff I mentioned. I will admit: I didn’t feel anything like “energy,” or whatever, for over a year of daily practice, so…. relax. It will come. Do the steps and attend to the details. The basics will always be the foundation of your practice and the source of all expansion and discovery. That’s why I keep coming to the “beginning” class—I get a fresh insight every single time. You’ll never get it all completely RIGHT!–the river’s too deep.

And don’t just practice Tai Chi when you are doing the form. Practice the principles (rooting, letting go, directing/focusing your mind, and synchronous movement) when you are bending to pick up a pencil, walking down the street, cooking, talking on the phone, standing in line, driving a car, climbing stairs, or doing some other exercise—I’ve discovered a lot of things about Tai Chi while swimming. I find that visualizing doing the form when I’m lying in bed is a great way to put myself to sleep—I rarely get past White Crane before I’m out. The more you think about it in your daily life, the more you will be changed by it. And that is what will happen—you will change. Tai Chi is movement alchemy. You will begin to feel different when you walk, sit, or stand. More profoundly, you will begin to see your self and others and situations that arise differently.

An interesting thing to remember about Tai Chi is that it is a hologram. Each moment of the form contains the entire form. Every moment requires the same skill set. There is no difference between Snake Creeps Down and Ward off Right except where your body parts appear to be. Inside, the same basic principles are at play. You really can’t do it “wrong.” You simply either do it or you don’t (more often the latter at the beginning). Just like trying to sing a specific note. If you don’t sing it, it’s just a different note. So go on to the next note. Self-judgment will only get in the way, because judgment creates tension through comparison and expectation and to DO Tai Chi, there must be no tension and no expectation or comparison, only listening and action. Be open and observant; that is when things will begin to be revealed. When you feel you’ve screwed up something, just keep going and try to observe what happens in the next moment. Or repeat the same few movements over and over and skip the rest of the form. Or don’t and come back to them the next day. When you feel a “sweet” sensation, notice/enjoy THAT and keep going. Just let go of it…whatever IT is. Stop holding on to it. At least while you’re doing the form. Then pick it back up if you need/want to when you’re done.

And be sure to ask questions in class—there really are no dumb ones. The longer you do the form, you will continue to find new moments to savor, and postures that seemed either like throwaways or bears to learn will suddenly become the flavor of the month. You will continually think “Oh, THAT’S what that position is supposed to feel like in my body” And the very next round you may discover something else entirely about that very same moment in the form because you have stepped into a new river. Finally there’s the paradox thing. “You go down…the energy comes up.” “Less effort equals more power.” “The more you surrender to gravity, the lighter you become.” It’s crazy, but true. Get used to it.

So, I hope you will continue on the river. Enjoy the scenery. You never know what’s going to wander up to the shoreline. But it’s all friendly.

Keep paddling,

Mark

What If It’s All Vertical?

 by Greg Brodsky

This article first appeared in T’ai Chi Magazine in October, 2005.

“In the three years that I’ve been teaching in the U. S., I’ve learned more than I did in the last 15 years in China,” the master said candidly. “That’s because you Americans are not afraid to ask questions.”

It was a steamy New Orleans Saturday, and I had joined 30 other people in this impressive gentleman’s workshop. He had over a dozen generations of t’ai chi masters in his family, and trained under the guidance of his grandfather, father, aunts and uncles since early childhood. I enjoyed his approach and pleasant manner, but this statement made the biggest impression on me.

“And,” he added, “you ask hard questions.”

His insight matched his candor. Genuinely curious questions from unindoctrinated people often enrich a teacher’s thinking better than educated challenges from within one’s own school of thought. We sometimes learn more by taking these questions to heart than we do when staying within the traditional boundaries of our specialties. Such moments enable us to try previously unexplored and unimagined ideas. We see things we couldn’t see before, move deeper into our art, and possibly advance the art itself.

Vertical internal movement presents such a question. In addressing it, we explore what happens when gravity itself becomes our teacher.

What if all t’ai chi movements are actually vertical?

T’ai chi students know that we must practice our solo forms without bobbing up and down. We move like people carrying pots of brewing tea in our bellies, gently letting the tea leaves settle to the bottom. Using images like this to stay on the same horizontal plane—not rising or descending in height as we shift our weight from foot to foot—we expect our qi (life force) to sink into the dantian (lower abdomen) as it is supposed to do.

But, what is actually going on inside of us? Does our energy travel horizontally as we shift our weight, or step forward or back, or when we issue jin? (intrinsic strength) What if it looks like horizontal movement when seen from the outside, but in every action, our internal energy actually rises or falls, flowing in a sine wave as we move through the form? What if all t’ai chi movements are actually vertical?

Such an idea, if it has merit, might transform one’s practice by opening doors to new skills and experiences. To explore it, let’s look at some universal moves: Beginning, stepping, withdrawing, and issuing.

Beginning  In Beginning, the initial movement of many t’ai chi forms, we raise our hands. Typically, the wrists lead and the fingers follow until our hands are about shoulder level. There, our fingers extend. This is a rising movement: up and out.What happens on the inside? Something lifts our hands, presumably qi rising through our bodies, enlivening us with our own vital essence that has been mobilized by our intention to raise our hands. Along with qi comes jin, the intrinsic strength that gives power to all our movements. These energies fill and lift our arms.Simultaneously, something sinks into our feet and beyond our feet into the earth. This we know as rooting, the complimentary action downward that gives substance to our actions upward. Without rooting, our movements would be empty, weak, and foundationless. The more powerful our downward action, the more powerful will be our upward action. The deeper the root, the more we can deliver jin. Whether you interpret Beginning as an applicable martial arts move or simply as the mobilization of qi that starts your moving meditation, this image of rising and descending energies should make clear that Beginning is a vertical movement.

A Side Comment In the ancient way of being a student, you watch, listen, and practice what you are taught for a long time. You tune yourself to your teacher’s methods, personality, and will. You don’t ask questions; you just do. If you receive and carry forward your teacher’s transmission, after the right number of years, you can start asking “what if…?” Those years of rigor earn you the right to ask the “what if” question.My first martial arts teacher, Min Pai, turned his back to me when I asked him questions. Being 18 and new to the martial arts, this behavior intimidated and confused me. But I eventually got the idea that I had to earn the right to ask him questions. My primary job was to calibrate myself to his wavelength and do what he said. I was there to sweat.My first teacher of Chinese medicine, Masahiro Nakazono, often laughed at my questions, especially the ones that began with “why?” Maybe he saw naiveté in my inquiries, along with the fact that I hadn’t observed him long enough to catch the nuance and context behind his method.He cheerfully made me sit seiza (kneeling) and just watch him work. My job was to figure out how to absorb what I saw while my legs silently fell asleep. I was there to see.But questions arose, and the process of digging into the more persistent of them slowly created a foundation to my practice of inner cultivation, healing arts, and martial arts, most significantly t’ai chi ch’uan. Now that I am well into my 60s, this questioning process fuels the evolution of my very being.

This article presents a few answers that keep popping up, recurring possibilities that inform and inspire my practice. Testing them over several years, I find that they continue to meet the criteria I place on them—physical effectiveness, energetic enhancement, consistency with t’ai chi principles, deepening relaxation, quieter mind, a taste of spiritual fulfillment. While integral to my own practice and teaching method, these answers remain exploratory, up for grabs, ready to be tested and challenged and surpassed by other questioners. For the moment, they remain useful.

Here, I focus on one of them: vertical internal movement.

Stepping  Now, let’s take stepping. Do you think of stepping as a horizontal action? When you step forward in your form, for example, do you lift your foot a few inches from the floor and try to keep at the same height as you slowly move it to its landing spot, then place it down?This might have seemed like a no-brainer to you; of course, you step across the floor! But, if you think of stepping as movement along the horizontal plane, you will hold unnecessary tension in your legs. Stepping down—not across—relieves this tension.By definition, unnecessary tension makes you double-weighted, whether you are stepping, shifting, or just standing still. Single-weightedness, by comparison, means differentiating between substantial (full, compressed, hard, yang) and insubstantial (empty, uncompressed, soft, yin) as much as possible. When you are stepping, you want this differentiation to approach 100/0% in your legs. It never quite gets there because movement requires some muscular work, but the more clearly differentiated you can be in your legs, the more flexible and agile will be your step.If, for example, you tried to step forward while still relying on the stepping leg for support, you would fall on your face. So, you naturally relieve the leg of its weight-bearing task before you step. But, what if you still tensed the leg as if it were bearing some weight? Your step would then be stiff-kneed, wooden, insufficiently differentiated, and therefore clumsy. Similarly, if you tense your legs when someone is trying to push you, your body becomes locked and easily uprooted. So you empty one leg and release your hips when you feel a push coming your way, which frees you to neutralize the push. This is differentiation.To take a clearly differentiated, single-weighted step, don’t think about holding the foot in the air. Instead, let gravity dictate how you step. Release the leg and let the foot “fall” quietly and gently into place, relying on the other leg to be substantial and rooted in guiding it. The primary tension then resides in your supporting leg, which serves as the pillar that aligns your hips and torso to the step. In this way, you experience stepping as a release to gravity. Try this: Take a forward step with the idea that you are sinking into your standing foot in order to place your stepping foot. Imagine that the strength in your stepping leg had vanished just as you initiated the step. To step then, you have to mentally aim your foot where you want it to go but use the standing leg—the one that still has strength—to guide your stepping foot’s placement. This produces an empty feeling in the stepping leg and the sensation of sinking and compressing into the standing leg.Let the process be very loose so that this sinking and compressing takes on an aspect of slow, guided “falling.” Relax and follow gravity’s downward pull into your standing foot. As you sink, let the stepping foot also fall into its new location, guided by your thought, your release to gravity, and the support you get from your standing leg. Once the foot arrives, continue to fall and let your weight transfer into it.Since you were gently falling the entire time, you just took an effortless step. Gravity did the work; you just followed along.Try stepping again. This time concentrate on maintaining control over the stepping leg. Hold it up as long as you think you are supposed to, and concentrate on moving it horizontally above ground before you place it down.Which way creates a more insubstantial step? Which way makes differentiation easier? Which step feels more relaxed?Letting gravity guide you helps you cultivate optimally differentiated stepping. You increase your gravitational sensitivity by playing form with the idea that each step is a step downward, perhaps visualizing a shallow stair, or a gently sloping hill, or simply stepping down into the floor. Instead of forcing your stepping leg to move horizontally, concentrate on the other leg to guide your empty, falling foot into place. Don’t try to move it quickly or slowly, but at the rate that your sense of gravity dictates in you, feeling—as Stewart Breslin once expressed Peter Ralston’s idea to me—“the speed of gravity.”

Cheng Man-Ching said: “I’m always concentrating on letting my internal energy sink. I always put my foot down in gravity.” 
This means that he advocated stepping down, not “over.”

Once you get this idea of stepping down, letting yourself experience a gently guided fall in all of your foot placements, your form becomes easier, quieter, and more relaxed. Being more relaxed, your root can become more reliable. Gravity, rather than your idea of style, becomes your guide. You avoid the flaw of keeping excess tension in the stepping leg, or a worse flaw, which I call “stepping over the invisible box.”

In the invisible box case, you raise the stepping foot as if you had to step over a box that isn’t there. This might seem like a good idea, as foot-sweep avoidance for example, but when practiced as a constant habit, it creates unnecessary tension. Further, if you study what is happening as you raise that leg, you will find that you tend to rise a little before actually stepping into place. This creates a self-inflicted uprooting, and a “noisy” telegraphing of your steps. By contrast, if you watch t’ai chi masters move, their feet slip silently into place before their opponents have a clue.

Conclusion: The more quiet and direct the step the more competent it is. Stepping with gravity—vertically downward—teaches you how to cultivate such a step.

Withdrawing

Withdrawing, or the act of shifting from your front foot to your rear foot, presents another opportunity to discover vertical internal movement. When you withdraw, you don’t shift backward; you shift downward into your rear foot. This corrects the flaw of pushing yourself off with your front leg when withdrawing, which causes you to rise a little, then settle a little as your weight arrives over the rear foot. I call this flaw the “convex shift.”

When your shift is convex, despite the fact that you are trying to remain rooted, you float slightly as you start to shift backwards. Instead of sinking—falling—into your rear foot, your habit of pushing yourself away from your front foot causes you to rise. This is the moment during push hands in which a skilled partner adheres to you and continues your backward and upward action, uprooting you. Trying to move horizontally instead of vertically promotes this flaw. Moving vertically, you would immediately sink down into your rear foot, not shift over to it then drop down.

Try this: Play your entire form with the idea that you are continually falling straight down into your feet. Because of gravity, we are all falling toward the earth all the time. Your sensitivity to this process enables you to feel the natural sinking occurring in your body when you let go. You will discover that sung (relaxing and becoming loose so you can sink) is a passive, natural act of release that you can achieve in any position. Sinking is letting your weight fall to the bottom, not some kind of hunkering down into a stance.

With each withdrawal in your form—every time you shift from the front foot to the rear foot—let yourself relax and fall straight down into your rear foot. Externally, you don’t have to drop closer to the ground, nor should you try to. A casual observer will not see any appreciable height change in you, for example. But internally, you will feel yourself dropping with gravity, relaxing into your feet, moving vertically into a deepening sense of rootedness. Don’t shift back; shift down.

Issuing

In the fourth example of vertical internal movement, let’s look at issuing: the delivery of power into the body of an opponent. Most people insist that jin issues from the rear leg and moves diagonally through the body. With the utmost respect, I suggest that in an uprooting forward push, as an example, jin issues from the front foot and moves straight up. Since in this movement you displace your opponent’s center, the upward movement becomes converted into forward movement as the opponent’s mass compresses your arms, dantian, and substantial front leg.

Some rest-of-the-world physics supports this idea of forward-moving energy issuing from the front foot. Ask yourself, which foot provides the root for a punch or the pitch of a baseball? Is it the forward foot or the rear foot? I’ve asked dozens of martial artists and athletes about this, and they all immediately answer “the rear foot.” But, after some consideration, almost all of them concede the fact that it is the leading foot: the front foot when moving forward and the rear foot when you are moving backward.

Take the example of a baseball pitcher throwing a ball. He winds back into his rear leg, raises his front leg high in the air as he draws back the ball, pushes off of the rear leg, and plants the front foot into the ground to throw the ball. From where does he push on the ground to launch the ball? It’s the front foot!Watch a baseball game long enough to study several pitches and you will see that at the moment of launching the ball, the pitcher’s rear foot is already unweighted or off the ground. The push-off from the rear leg gets him into position, but the actual root of the throw is in the front foot. To test this in your own body, place your left foot forward (if you are right handed) and try throwing a ball while standing entirely on your rear foot. Then do it again while standing completely on your front foot. Which feels better, more natural and powerful? While you can throw from either foot, you will find yourself preferring your front foot, the natural root of a forward throw.This changes when you move backwards. Quarterbacks in American football always prefer to step forward into their throws. This enables them to plant their front foot and turn their hips and shoulders into the throw. When forced to back up as they throw, they launch from the rear foot, which, by definition when going backwards is their leading foot. If you think that qi, jin, or any other aspects of t’ai chi operate outside the laws of physics, you might be tempted to discount such physical-world mechanical descriptions as we explore here.  Consider the possibility that, while sports and t’ai chi engage very different ideas, the same physical laws govern them.I have repeatedly asked William Chen, my teacher since 1965, if in his many years of world-wide exposure to t’ai chi masters he has ever seen anything that indicates that any master possesses abilities that transcend physics. He consistently answers, “No. It is all just physics and skill.”Should you decide to test this premise, I propose that you ask your teacher to toss a 50-pound weight with the same ease that he or she tosses a 200-pound student. Chances are, he won’t be able to do it. This might be because some beyond-physics forces hidden in your teacher don’t uproot the 200-pound person. The uprootedness comes from a combination of his own tension and your teacher’s mastery of t’ai chi principles and skills, all of which can be described through both ancient and modern metaphors and models.As 21st century students, our interests lie in bridging ancient and modern ideas as best we can. In so doing, we can learn from many sources, advance our understanding and ability to communicate with each other, and eventually earn the responsibility that will eventually fall to us if we persevere long enough: to be the stewards of our arts.

Punching employs the same mechanics; you throw a punch, after all, releasing it like an arrow from a bow. The difference between the ball-throwing analogy and the bow-and-arrow analogy is that your physical tension is greatest just before releasing the arrow and concentrates in the upper body, while you seek absolute hardness (aka physical tension) just as you penetrate the target of your punch, and this hardness concentrates along the vector line from your leading foot to your fist while everything else relaxes.

In theory, a sufficiently skilled boxer can deliver a hard shot from either foot to either hand while going in any direction. But in general, when a boxer steps into a jab, the jab is more powerful than when he or she backs up. This is because the root of the jab resides in the front foot onto which he has just stepped. When throwing a hook or a cross, the rear foot sends the boxer’s body into place for the punch, but the leading foot—the front foot—provides the base from which to actually throw the punch.

Once you realize that throwing a ball or a punch engage nearly the same mechanics (e.g., the elbow follows the hand in a punch while it leads the hand in a throw, but the rooting mechanism is the same) you can more readily look into what happens when you issue energy in any t’ai chi movement. I became intrigued about this when watching William Chen’s fluid action, and later while studying videos of Cheng Man-Ching demonstrating his uproots.

I met Cheng Man-Ching at Manhattan’s China Institute in 1964. As a young aikido student, I was training seven days week in the same dojo as Lou Kleinsmith and Maggie Newman. Lou loved to tell stories about Professor Cheng, “the old man” who did amazing martial arts feats. So, one day, I ventured uptown to see. The silent, synchronous movement of people playing form seemed strange and beautiful in contrast to the sweaty aikido activity that I loved so much. I signed up, started learning form, and soon after, push hands.Even a minimal understanding of the principles would come years later, so despite my attempts to deflect people, everybody in the room could push me several feet away at will. Meanwhile, I interpreted pushing powerfully to be a central objective and tried in earnest to dislodge my partner whenever I could. “Investing in loss” hadn’t yet entered my consciousness.In one session, some senior students seemed bothered by the fact that this new kid could dislodge them. They became increasingly agitated as Professor Cheng watched from the sidelines. He eventually came up to me with his soft smile, and waved me to him in an invitation to join him.I felt self-conscious and kept murmuring the names of the moves to myself so I could remember what to do. “Roll Back, Ward Off, Push, Press…” Meanwhile, I tried to be aware of what was going on, what he felt like, what would be different in this person. He had not been introduced, but I had seen him there, watching and occasionally talking to the group through Tam Gibbs. I wasn’t sure if this was the “old man” that I had heard so much about or just someone else who was very senior.”Soft as butter,” I thought, so I probed, extending my Push a little. He disappeared. Letting me place my hands on his chest, he yielded to my Press. Unlike his students, he gave me lots of room, never forcing me back onto my rear foot in the struggle to find somewhere to go. He just yielded more each time. At one point, as I pressed onto his body and he seemed to lean over backwards with a smile, I thought, “Holy smokes! I’m gonna push him, too!”The next thing I felt was the wall behind me as my back slammed into it. An instant after that, my feet hit the floor. Never feeling his hands driving into me, I had traveled several feet in the air without any awareness of having been launched. I returned to contact him and Bam! He did it again. Wham! Again. He repeated this at least five or six times in succession. Having put everything into perspective, he smiled and gestured for me to continue practicing. As he walked away, glancing at some of his senior students, I thought, “OK. So that’s THE ‘Old Man.'” If you watch Cheng Man-Ching on video, he typically steps into his opponent when issuing a push. In preparation, he slips his back foot forward a little to close the space between them, then quietly sets his front foot into place. From there, he drops forward and launches his opponent. The rear foot, which started his self-compressive action, is empty and unweighted at the time of the launch, available for follow through and to keep balance.The energy for his uproot comes up from the front foot, vertically, not horizontally. The vertical movement translates into forward motion as the mass of his opponent compresses Cheng’s relaxed arms. Because this compression is passive—he’s not shoving with his arms—the opponent doesn’t feel anything from his hands; it’s all coming straight up through him from his foot.Uprooting is pure vertical movement issuing from the ground. You move under your opponent and come up through him or her while sending your rooted foot downward. As Peter Ralston puts it, “Hands up; you down.”

It just might be a sine wave.

How does this all play out in your form? Having looked at Beginning, stepping, punching, and issuing in the light of verticality, the idea of the entire form being a repeating sine wave begins to make sense. Energy moves down the curve as you either step, shift, or sink into place—which are all falling actions—and moves up the curve—up through your body—as you energize or “apply” each move. While you don’t bob up and down, the energy passing through your body rises and falls in a smooth rhythm. As you let your mind quietly settle into your dantian, you can feel the relaxation of each fall and the release of each issuing. This now leads to “internal throwing.”

What if playing form is just falling and throwing?

Most of us start learning t’ai chi through a series of postures that we repeat thousands of times according to a consistent set of principles. Slowly moving through these postures, we learn qualities of movement and thought that gradually change how we move and think. The martial arts usefulness of this practice depends on how much it trains us to move the way we want to move at our fastest and most effective; the more our slow, relaxed form employs the mechanics of fast, applied action the better. We can measure our form’s usefulness as an inner cultivation tool by the internal states it evokes in us, and the availability of those states in our daily lives.

While we work with postures, we are not posing. By posing, I mean holding fixed positions. Even when we practice standing meditations like the Universal Post or remaining in a particular posture, we don’t freeze in our stillness. A rich, dynamic process occurs within: relaxing and sinking, circulating and settling qi into the dantian, feeling the spirit of vitality rise to the tops of our heads, softening our breathing, expanding a little.

The T’ai Chi Classics state that when one part of the body moves, the whole body moves, and when one part of the body stops, the whole body stops. Having just acknowledged the internal movement that occurs when we are still, what does this mean about stillness when we are in motion? It means that our minds discover a place of stillness, not that some body parts stop while other parts keep moving. At no time do we hold any part of ourselves in rigid positions; nothing is locked. That would be posing.

When, for example, you extend your arm with the hand curved into the characteristic hook of a Single Whip, do you hold it there? For how long? Why? When you shift into your back foot following your Push, do your arms remain fixed at the elbows and shoulders? Are you isolating parts of your body from the whole-body fluid circulation of qi? Through such questions, you can realize that holding your arms in place—locking your joints—at any time creates a flaw in your practice. The idea of falling sheds light on this flaw and its remedy.

Bouncing Up

If you always fall toward the earth, do you ever “land?” The answer is yes, and your landing—rooting—provides you with the foundation from which to launch your hands, feet, shoulders, elbows, knees, and hips into an opponent or into whatever posture you are playing at the moment. With a sound foundation, you can throw these parts of your body where you want them to go, sending them out like the metaphorical arrow from your bow. Relax enough and your throwing becomes effortless.Throwing becomes the corollary to falling. You fall into your feet until you don’t need to fall any more. Then, boing, you bounce up out of your feet, letting the energy of the bounce move through your relaxed body to your hands or to a kicking foot. Like tossing a tennis ball against the floor, the deeper and more completely you fall, the more powerfully your energy can bounce back up. But since you don’t want to rise, just the body part that you are launching, you throw the body part—your hands, for example—from your rooted foot. This is a good time to remember that the form is not an end unto itself, but a means to an end. We don’t practice form so we can perform the form; we practice it so we can cultivate deeply quiet and perhaps even ecstatic inner states, and so we can move with extraordinary skill, speed, and power while sustaining those states.Slow, consistent repetition of the same moves for years eventually develops a “track” in our bodies and minds in which those moves occur with the least amount of mental noise, tension, or extraneous action. When you learn how to release your arms or relinquish your unconscious struggle against gravity, these discoveries can serve the whole of your life. You can practice all the time.

Another of Cheng Man-Ching’s favorite aphorisms is: “T’ai chi ch’uan has no arms; if it has arms, it is not t’ai chi ch’uan.” Since t’ai chi seems to be about moving your arms a whole lot, this statement can cause a blank stare to spread across your face—until you think of falling and throwing. If you had no arms, or maybe easier to imagine, flaccid arms and lead weights as hands, and you wanted to send these heavy hands to specific places, you would have to line up your bones and throw your hands by pushing your foot into the ground, turning your hips and torso, and thinking about where you want your hands to go. Practicing form this way, you have “no arms.”

With no arms, you don’t put your hands in place; you throw them to the place that matches your picture of each posture. To accomplish this, you have to relax. You will also wind up by turning the opposite way a little before you turn into your throw. This produces a swing to the right in preparation for a move to the left. Cheng Man-Ching’s translator called this “momentating:” the momentum (wind up) created by the previous move provides the impetus for the next move. In Cheng’s words: “The entire solo form is nothing but move and swing, swing and move; that’s all.”

The “swing and move” pattern is also swing and release. You release your hands as if you were throwing them.

How do you get a released throw to occur while practicing slow form? You find the answer when you relax. Where speed enables a pitcher or boxer to release a throw, deep relaxation creates your ability to throw slowly. Relax enough, and you can launch your hand in a specific direction, release your control of the arm, and notice your hand moving to where you threw it while your whole body quietly drives the action like a well geared machine.

This requires patience. The move will “ripen,” or come to its natural conclusion. Hurrying, arbitrarily slowing yourself down, squeezing the movement into a stylistic ideal, or tightening up will interrupt the throw. You simply need to push your foot, turn your waist, launch your hand, relax, and wait. To your delight, your movement will reach its natural “apex,” the completion of the throw, which is the fulfillment of the posture. Like the tennis ball in our earlier example, having bounced to the peak of its wave, it will start to fall. You can then fall into your root and prepare for the next bounce to come.

From Confusion to Continuity

The T’ai Chi Classics state: ”Let the postures be without breaks or holes, hollows or projections, or discontinuities and continuities of form.” Falling and throwing eliminate the flaws that this passage describes. Once in motion, the wave of falling and throwing keeps you fluid throughout your form. You hold nothing, stop nothing, and ride a wave of your vital energy and intrinsic strength that rise and fall with your breath, intention, and relationship with gravity. Your interplay of substantial and insubstantial takes on a rhythm that makes playing form like playing a beautiful piece of music.

There will be some confusing moments, though, during which you “fall upward.” When you return to an upright position after playing Yang style Needle at Sea Bottom, for example, you are falling. Since you threw your hand downward as you bent at the hip and “applied” the move, the next action in your repeating sine wave causes you to fall. This becomes easy once you think of sinking—falling—into your right foot as you straighten up and slip your left foot into its bow stance position for Fan Through the Back, which comes next. Then falling into your left foot, you reach bottom and fire off your hands, throwing the left one forward like a spear, and the blade edge of the right one upward as it flies into place to protect your head.

Another confusing moment occurs as you set up your Press, which follows Roll Away in the Sparrow’s Tail sequence. Roll Away, being an applied, energized, thrown move, coincides with the rising portion of our sine wave. Once Roll Away is complete, you can fall again before the next throw, which will be Press.

1. Needle at Sea Bottom: Energy rises through you as you throw your right hand downward.

2. Transition: Falling into your rear foot as you return to an upright position.

3. Set up: Falling further as you step into place for the next move.

4. Fan Through the Back: Energy rises through you as you throw both hands.

But your hands rise as you fall into your front foot. Do your hands “fall up?” Your confusion resolves once you realize that this business of falling describes your subjective, internal experience, so you can feel the sensation of falling anywhere in your body at almost any time. Just follow gravity. Further, your whole body is not slumping when you fall; the rest of you can fall under your rising hands. Let yourself relax while you shift from the rear foot you had rooted for Roll Away so you can fall into your front foot, which becomes the root of your Press.

Your ability to let your arms rise while you drop downward produces a sense of weightlessness. Chang San-Feng said: “In motion the whole body should be light and agile, with all parts of the body linked as if threaded together.” This interplay of falling and throwing promotes such lightness, agility, and connectedness. It helps make a distinction between relaxing and collapsing, about which I was confused for many years. Even as you relax while playing your form and get “heavier than your virtual opponents,” you should not feel heavy. Play with a sense of lightness.

You can achieve this rooted lightness by feeling the sine wave and the passively compressive core that enables you to bounce out of each fall. Inwardly, your energy will be firm and direct, and outwardly your body will be soft and pliant. The sine wave model also makes silk reeling more accessible. Silk reeling enables you to find continuity within the seeming discontinuity between separate moves. When you perceive the falling and throwing that occur in each movement’s birth and maturation, the natural acceleration downward and bounce of internal strength, the movements will link together so that the end of each movement creates the beginning of the next.

Would you like some tea?

In all this discussion of vertical internal movement, you might ask, “What about the center?” So much of t’ai chi is based on the dantian as center. In fact, if falling and throwing are all you do, your practice will be, well, without a center. Let’s address that from the real-world-physics point of view we have been using.

Try this: Find a gently sloping hill with an uneven surface. A little path would be a bonus. Walk down that hill with the idea of falling into your feet as much as your safety allows, while loosely throwing your arms so you advance as easily as possible. Your task is to walk down this hill in the most economical way with respect to gravity and your energy expenditure. Get loose.

The exercise will quickly teach you that it is best to avoid a lot of bobbing up and down. You will find that if you land hard when stepping down you have to work harder to set your footing than if you landed softly; you are hitting the ground instead of joining with it. You will also find that pushing off more than forward motion requires creates extra work.

The most economical, efficient, and effective way to descend this hill is to relax into your belly and let your legs join the ground in its rising and falling. Like a skier on a downhill mogul run, you “sit” with your center gliding in the smallest possible range of vertical movement while your legs adjust —filling and emptying—with the terrain. You find yourself moving just like the teapot model mentioned at the beginning of this article teaches, but not because you are trying to move horizontally; you are, in this case, really descending a hill. Your sense of gravity teaches you how to best navigate this movement and your sense of experimental curiosity teaches you things that would otherwise take years to discover.

At bottom of the hill, ask yourself this question: Once you go back to practicing t’ai chi on a horizontal floor, why would this change?

What if it doesn’t?

The Three Treasures: Jing, Qi and Shen

In the Daoist tradition that forms the foundation of the traditional Oriental healing and health-promoting arts, there are said to be Three Treasures that constitute our life. These are Jing, Qi (pronounced “chee”) and Shen. The ultimate goal of all of the Oriental healing and health-promoting arts is to cultivate, balance and expand the Three Treasures. At the highest level of the Oriental healing arts, the practitioner is attempting to harmonize all aspects of one’s being. This is accomplished by focusing one’s attention on the Three Treasures. Although there are no exact English translations for Jing, Qi and Shen, they are generally translated as essence, vitality and spirit. Jing means the essence of the body and is associated with body fluids, the hormonal system, the food we eat, and our physical strength. Daoists believe that the air we breathe, when combined with Jing, is the source of Qi. This is a natural occurrence but can be magnified through physical exercise and internal practices such as Qigong and Taijiquan. Adequate Qi can be further refined into Shen—mental energy and spirituality. While all people naturally complete this process, Daoists seek to open and maintain channels of energy circulation (meridians), empower dormant centers in the body, and store energy.

The Daoist master Sung Jin Park compared the Three Treasures to a burning candle: “Jing is like the wax and wick, which are the substantial parts of the candle. They are made of material, which is essentially condensed energy. The flame of the lit candle is likened to Qi, for this is the energetic activity of the candle, which eventually results in the burning out of the candle. The radiance given off by the flaming candle is Shen. The larger the candle and the better the quality of the wax and wick, the steadier will be its flame and the longer the candle will last. The steadier the flame, the steadier the emitted light; the greater the flame, the greater the light.”

“Of the Three Treasures, only Qi has received some recognition in the West so far, but the other two are equally wondrous. Jing has been called the “superior ultimate” treasure, even though in a healthy, glowing body, the quantity is small. Jing existed before the body existed, and enters the body tissues and becomes the root of our body. When we keep Jing within our body, our body can be vigorous. If a person cares for the cavity of Jing, and does not hurt it recklessly, it is very easy to enjoy a life of great longevity. Without Jing energy, we cannot live.

Qi is the invisible life force that enables the body to think and perform voluntary movement. It can be seen in the movement of energy in the cosmos and in all other movements and changes. Coming from heaven into the body through the nose (yang gate) and mouth (yin gate), it circulates through the 12 meridians to nourish and preserve the inner organs.

Shen energy is similar to the English meaning of the words ‘mind’ and ‘spirit.’ It is developed by the combination of Jing and Qi. When these two treasures are in balance, the mind is strong, the spirit is great, the emotions are under control and the body is strong and healthy. But it is very difficult to expect a sound mind to be cultivated without sound Jing and Qi. A sound mind lives in a sound body. When cultivated, Shen will bring peace of mind. When we develop Jing, we get a large amount of Qi automatically. When we have a large amount of Qi, we will also have strong Shen, and we will become bright and glowing as a holy man.”

The Daoist master Sung Jin Park compared the Three Treasures to a burning candle. Jing is like the wax and wick, which are the substantial parts of the candle. They are made of material, which is essentially condensed energy. The flame of the lit candle is likened to qi, for this is the energetic activity of the candle, which eventually results in the burning out of the candle. The radiance given off by the flaming candle is shen. The larger the candle and the better the quality of the wax and wick, the steadier will be its flame and the longer the candle will last. The steadier the flame, the steadier the emitted light; the greater the flame, the greater the light.

“There are three treasures in the human body. These are known as jing, qi and shen. Of these three, only qi has received some recognition in the West so far. Qi is but one of the Three Treasures–the other two are equally wondrous. Jing has been called the “superior ultimate” treasure, even though even in a healthy, glowing body, the quantity is small. Jing existed before the body existed, and this jing enters the body tissues and becomes the root of our body. When we keep jing within our body, our body can be vigorous. If a person cares for the cavity of jing, and does not hurt it recklessly, it is very easy to enjoy a life of great longevity. Without jing energy, we cannot live.

Qi is the invisible life force that enables the body to think and perform voluntary movement. The power of qi can be seen in the power that enables a person to move and live. It can be seen in the movement of energy in the cosmos and in all other movements and changes. Coming from heaven into the body through the nose (yang gate) and mouth (yin gate), it circulates through the 12 meridians to nourish and preserve the inner organs.

Shen energy is similar to the English meaning of the words “mind” and “spirit.” It is developed by the combination of jing and qi energy. When these two treasures are in balance, the mind is strong, the spirit is great, the emotions are under control and the body is strong and healthy. But it is very difficult to expect a sound mind to be cultivated without sound jing and qi. An old proverb says that “a sound mind lives in a sound body.” When cultivated, shen will bring peace of mind. When we develop jing, we get a large amount of qi automatically. When we have a large amount of qi, we will also have strong shen, and we will become bright and glowing as a holy man.”

The Eight Gates of T’ai Chi Ch’uan

In the work of t’ai chi ch’uan there are certain key aspects or qualities that should be trained to allow a fuller understanding of how the art works, both as a health exercise and more essentially, as an effective martial art.

The starting point for learning t’ai chi ch’uan is the Hand Form, the series of carefully choreographed movements which have their origins in the original 13 postures, reputedly created by Chang San Feng in Wudang Mountain nearly 500 years ago. The tai chi Hand Form consists of a series of postures, linked together in a smooth, flowing manner. These sequences, whatever the style (Chen, Yang, Wu, Sun and Li being the main styles), train the body and mind to be rooted, relaxed, centered, focused, and flexible.

Tai chi Push Hands (Tui Shou) is a partner exercise which is considered to be a training exercise that is a bridge between the Hand Form and free-fighting (San Shou). The basic elements of Push Hands is connecting, through hands and arms, to your partner in a soft, gentle manner to train listening energy (Ting Jing), sensitivity, awareness, grounding while retraining the body’s natural reflexes to relax and flow with oncoming energy, rather than stiffening up, resisting or opposing the attack.

While Push Hands ultimately requires spontaneity, it is essential to train the key aspects in a structured, systematic manner to fully comprehend the effective techniques of the art. The key aspects are the Eight Gates (Bamen) or Principles: Peng, Lui, Ji, An, Tsai, Lieh, Chou, and Kao. Each of these aspects relate to particular Hand Form postures:   Peng – Ward Off
   Lui – Roll Back
   Ji – Press
   An – Push
   Tsai – Pluck or Grasp
   Lieh – Split
   Chou – Elbow Stroke
   Kao – Shoulder Stroke

Peng is an expanding opening quality, likened to a filling balloon. Rather than exercising raw physical strength, Peng trains a connection from the ground, through the body with the mental intention of opening and expanding through the arms ultimately uprooting the opponent.

Lui is a yielding absorbing quality where one is connecting to the opponent’s oncoming force, and moving in the direction of the force while ‘sticking’ or ‘adhering’ and ultimately leading that force into the ‘void’ or emptiness.

Ji is a pressing quality somewhat like that of squeezing into the center of a sponge. The palm of one hand is connected to the inside of the wrist of the other hand while being connected to the opponent, ultimately connecting to their ‘center’ and disturbing their equilibrium.

An is a pushing quality which is executed by placing the palms on the body of the opponent and connecting to the ground, through the feet, pushing from the feet, into the palms and uprooting the opponent.

Tsai is a plucking quality similar to pulling a plant from the ground. When pressing or pushing the opponent towards the ground there comes a point where they will respond to the downward force by trying to rise upwards, this is the point when one would connect to that upcoming force and ‘pluck’ the opponent upwards and off their feet.

Lieh is an opening, splitting movement which separates the parts of the opponent’s body in two directions such as can be seen in movements like ‘Diagonal Flying’ where one would place their leg behind the opponent’s while connecting the arm across their chest and turning from the center, causing the opponent to fall backwards with the opposing forces being applied to the upper and lower parts of their body.

Chou is ‘Elbow Stroke’ where the opponent is struck with the elbow, which is light and free, with the impulse of the force coming from the center or waist and propelled by ground force from the feet.

Kao or ‘Shoulder Strike’ is when one’s shoulder is connected to the opponent’s body and the impulse of the force again comes from the ground, through the feet, through the body, propelling the connection through the shoulder forward, into the opponent’s center.

 


Breathing Lessons

                  by Li Yaxuan

Correct breathing is the foundation of all Tai Chi practice.  Why is this so?  Nearly every meditative tradition in the world has identified an intimate connection between the mind and the breath. Changes in the mind and the breath reflect each other like mirrors.  If someone is emotionally upset, one of the first things that happens is that their breathing becomes shallow and uneven. Conversely, if the breath is calm, deep and even, the mind reflects these qualities as well.  If you want to get hold of the mind, where do you begin?  Where is the mind?  The mind is nowhere.  It is immaterial and elusive.  However, the breath gives a tangible, readily-available handle for beginning to train the mind.

In Tai Chi we use abdominal breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing.  The diaphragm is the large dome-shaped muscle at the base of the rib-cage whose rising and falling is the major pump for the activity of breathing.  “Abdominal breathing” means that the abdomen is completely relaxed during breathing so that the diaphragm can freely descend.  This slightly increases the pressure in the abdomen during inhalation, causing it to bulge out slightly.  During exhalation, the abdomen sinks back down.

The movement of the diaphragm accounts for 75 percent of the force involved in breathing.  The other 25 percent is provided by the intercostal muscles (small muscles between the ribs which move the rib cage like a bellows) and the neck muscles (which help to lift the ribcage).  If one uses shallow, chest breathing, the body is only breathing at ¼ of its capacity.  This affects the amount of energy that the body is receiving.  Studies have found that hypertensive patients, as well as people with phobias and depression tend to be chest breathers.  Simply learning to habitually breath with the abdomen can help to alleviate these problems.

The Chinese also refer to the abdomen as the “second heart.” This is because two of the largest blood vessels in the body (the aorta and the vena cava) pass through the diaphragm into the abdomen.  During deep abdominal breathing, the pressure inside the abdomen rhythmically increases and decreases.  This creates a pumping action that can assist the heart, reducing its workload. The Chinese also describe abdominal breathing as “bottle breathing.”  When a liquid pours into a bottle, it fills the bottle from the bottom up.  In the same way, we should feel the breath pouring in through the nose and filling the body form the bottom (the lower abdomen) up.

There are several simple exercises that can help you learn abdominal breathing.  Once this breathing becomes habitual, you will use it in your Tai Chi practice (and your everyday) naturally and without any conscious effort. Ultimately, the breathing in Tai Chi should be natural and unforced.  Besides occasionally checking to make sure that the abdomen is relaxed and gently rising and falling with the breath, one should not focus too much on the breath during Tai Chi practice.  Trying to control the breath usually only results in increased tension and stress.

Exercise One:  Pure Awareness of Breath

•    Lie on your back.  This position allows all of the postural muscles of the body to release so that there is less tension on the breathing mechanism.

•    Close your eyes, take a deep breath, exhale and relax.

•    Feel your forehead relax.  Feel your eyes and all the muscles of your eyes relax.  As your eyes relax, feel your gaze become gentler and more receptive, less intense, grasping, hard, judgmental.

•    Now with this non-judgmental awareness, become aware of your breath.  As you are breathing, what parts of your body can you feel moving?  What is happening with your chest and ribs?  Belly? Shoulders?

•    Place one hand on your chest and another on your belly.  Feel how the hands rise and fall with your breath.

Exercise Two:  Abdominal Breathing

•    Lie on your back and draw up the knees so that the feet are resting flat on the floor.

•    Place one hand on the lower abdomen (below the navel) and another on the chest.  Breath in such a way that the hand on the chest does not rise, but the one on the belly does.

•    You can also practice this by placing heavy book on the lower abdomen and leaving the arms extended by the sides.  Watch the book rise and fall as you breathe.

Exercise Three:  Bottle Breathing

•    Continuing from the previous exercise, now breathe as low in the belly as possible.

•    On inhalation, feel the breath filling the bottom of the abdomen first, causing the perineum to bulge out first, then the lower belly, then the navel. (NOTE: the perineum is the area between the anus and the genitals.  It is the lowest point of the abdomen).

Exercise Four:  Contracting at the End of the Exhalation

•    During abdominal/bottle breathing, the muscles of the abdomen should be completely relaxed.  It is important not to use force to “push out” or “suck in” the belly.  The gentle rising and falling of the abdomen comes from softening the muscles, not pumping them.  This allows the diaphragm to descend and naturally expand the relaxed abdomen.  The following exercise can help to create a feeling of relaxed, effortless expansion of the abdomen during breathing.  They are based on the principle of “post-isometric relaxation,” which says that a muscle relaxes more easily if it is tightened first for a few seconds and then released.

•    Begin bottle breathing as described in the previous exercise.

•    At the end of the next exhalation, gently contract the abdomen, pulling the belly closer to the spine, and pull up on the perineum.  Feel yourself squeezing the last bit of air out of the abdomen.

•    Release the contraction and completely relax the abdomen. Allow the breath to just flood in.

•    At the end of the inhalation, allow the belly to naturally deflate without any effort. Then, at the very end of the exhalation, once again pull in the abdomen and perineum.

•    Imagine the upper body like an eyedropper.  The bulb of the eyedropper is the abdomen and the glass tube extends up the throat to the nose.  At the end of the exhalation, gently squeeze the bulb, then release it as you inhale and allow the breath to fill the vacuum with no effort on your part.

•    Rest and breathe normally.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No Effort

“Only those activities that are easy and pleasant will become part of a person’s habitual life…Actions that are hard to carry out, for which a man must force himself to overcome his inner opposition will never become part of his normal daily life.”

— Moshe Feldenkrais

Wu Wei is a famous Chinese expression meaning “No Effort.” Wu Wei does not mean that one takes no action, but rather that one’s actions have no trace of straining, pushing, forcing, or imposing. It refers to the ability to adapt to conditions and change according to circumstances without forceful insistence or striving.

From the outset, it is important to understand that, in Tai Chi practice, very little progress will be made through pushing and straining. Everything should be done in the most relaxed manner possible. Striving and struggling will not yield results in Tai Chi. This is one of the most difficult concepts for Americans to grasp. We are a nation of active doers who have an unconscious belief in “No pain, no gain.” Such an attitude is one of several negative habits that will have to be gradually shed during the process of mastering Tai Chi.

From the beginning, one should view Tai Chi as a pleasant experience.  If one understands and applies this principle, it becomes relatively easy to develop a lifelong habit of Tai Chi practice. Studies have shown that if one’s motivation for exercise is purely negative or goal-oriented (e.g. to lose weight, to build muscle) it is more difficult to persist than if one is motivated by the sheer enjoyment of the process. There is a steep learning curve in Tai Chi, but it should be fun at every step of the way. So please do not strain or push as you practice.

“First, you should have a proper mental attitude toward practice. What is this attitude?  Tell yourself that the time you spend everyday in practice is the most enjoyable and comfortable and pleasant of times.  Since we don’t spend that much time each day in practice, the time we do spend is precious…Do you feel practice is an obligation or a duty, or is it enjoyable? If you don’t find enjoyment in practice, it will be hard to continue…When you practice, think of it as a time without worries. Every other time there are difficulties to think about.  It’s like lifting burdens off your body and mind.  It should be a relief. During practice you let everything else go.”

— Sheng Yan , Chinese Zen (Ch’an) Master

Five Essential T’ai Chi Skills

by Wang Hai Jun, translated by Nick Gudge, edited by Mark Bernhard

The five most important skills for a beginning student in taijiquan are:

  1. Fang Song– Loosen the body by relaxing the joints
  2. Peng Jin– an outward supportive strength, the basic skill of taiji
  3. DingJin– upright and straight
  4. Chen– rooted
  5. Chan Si Jin– Reeling Silk Skill

These are not skills that lead themselves to be grasped intuitively, yet all taijiquan is based around them. They are also not learned sequentially. It is not a “Step One leading to Step Two” type process. Rather it is a process of immersion that leads to understanding. The student does not completely understand fang song before starting to understand peng jing. Rather they are collective, with progress in each skill acting as an aid to progress in the others. A little bit more skill gained here and a little bit more there. Persistence in practice provides the opportunity for progress. The more your practice utilizes these skills the more progress you will make.

Fang Song

The first of these skills is fang song, sometimes abbreviated to song (pronounced “soong”). Song is frequently translated as “relax.”  While this is true, it does not really describe the process. The joints must relax, but as a consequence other parts of the body must work hard, particularly the legs. Loosening the joints is perhaps a better translation. The result should not be a body like a cooked bowl of noodles: rather it should be like a solid piece of rubber, strong but not stiff. The term fang has two meanings. The first is about something remaining under control, connected to both the mind and the body (in this case, not going limp). The second is to put something down, away from you. The combination of these two meanings provides the understanding needed. Stiffness is difficult to recognize, but the effects of stiffness are easier to see. As the joints stiffen, they rise up. As they are loosened, the body, particularly the hips and shoulders, sinks down. Once the joints are loosened, they will be free to rotate properly and to transmit rotation to and from other parts of the body. This is a fundamental requirement of taijiquan.

Peng Jin

The phrase peng jin has been the source of some confusion. The two characters (peng and jin) have several meanings in Chinese, and specific meaning within the context of taijiquan. Jin is itself is not easy to translate into English. It is translated variously as skill, strength and energy and the term incorporates all of these meanings. Peng is even more difficult to translate. It has been frequently translated as “ward off energy”. I prefer the phrase ‘outward supportive strength’ as a translation. Peng (pronounced “pong”) is not a natural or instinctive skill. It comes from a long period of correct practice. Without a good understanding of peng and then considerable training to transform this understanding into this skill in every part of the body, it will not arise. Peng will not be gained by accident. It is systematically trained into the body over time. When I was exploring writing this piece I considered making peng jin the first most important skill of taijiquan. However, while peng should be considered the most important skill, it is dependent on loosening the body (fang song.) It is an effective argument that Taijiquan is peng jin chuan because without peng there is no taijiquan. It is taijiquan’s essential skill. Peng is always used when moving, neutralizing, striking, coiling etc,. Through peng all other taijiquan skills are utilized.

Chen Fake taught that there are two types of peng jin. The first is the fundamental skill or strength of taijiquan. The second is one of the eight commonly recognized taijiquan jins (penglujiancailiehzhou & kao.) The first type of peng is the core element that is the foundation of these eight commonly recognized skills. It is perhaps best considered in English as a separate term from the peng that is listed as one of these eight skills. Peng is the fundamental basis of all eight jins.  From the outside peng has different appearances so it is sometimes called the eight gates (after the eight directions,) but the heart of all eight is always peng. It is the fundamental skill. A student cannot simply demonstrate and use peng just because they will it, however. It requires external posture training combined with internal training to be able to correctly express it.

The fundamental skill peng describes when the limbs and body stretch or extend while maintaining looseness or fang song. Without looseness (fang song) the body is stiff and peng is lost. If the body is too loose or limp then peng is also lost. Without stretching the body is not properly connected and peng is lost. If the limbs and body are over extended, they become rigid and peng is lost. So it is fairly easy to see that a “balance” must be maintained to retain peng. If any part of the body does not have peng, it is an error and must be remedied appropriately. Many form corrections are about regaining peng to various parts of the body, most commonly the knees and elbows. Typically peng is lost or lessened because the body has stiffened or not been loosened sufficiently, most commonly the hips and shoulders. For those who do not comprehend peng, it can be barely discerned in the surface of the forms. For those who do comprehend peng, its absence is clearly visible. In many respects the basic hand forms of taijiquan specifically works as a peng jin training arena.

Peng jin is not an “on / off” skill. While it is easy not to have it, once it is understood its quality can be improved. Like any form of understanding e.g. learning a new language, it is quite possible not to understand anything in the beginning. While learning there are many degrees of improvement or quality that can be sought and reached. From this understanding it is quite easy to see not only the importance of looseness (fang song) as an integral pre-requisite for peng – this fundamental skill of taijiquan – but also, that improving the appropriate looseness of the body will improve the quality or degree of peng skill. From inside the body, when peng is present any pressure is transferred to the ground (rooted). The stretching process connects the body in such a way that this happens without additional effort. It could be called a flexible structure inside the body. It is not rigid, but loose and flexible where pressure to any part is easily transferred across its whole structure.

When touching someone else, peng can been described as an audible (“listening”) skill because, not only does it allow the detection of fine motions of an opponent (as if through the sense of hearing,) it also allows determination of their structural weaknesses. When touching a person with peng it become possible to know the best direction to attack them as well as being able to comprehend what the other person is doing and even intending to do. Listening skill (ting jin) occurs through peng jin.

In taijiquan push hands (tui shou) the emphasis of peng is on leading and neutralizing an incoming force. When peng jin is present there is the potential for rotation. With loose joints the body becomes mobile and by stretching it becomes connected. So any pressure on the body causes rotation or motion. Peng is at the heart of silk reeling as we will see later. It is also the skill that allows for a rapid response for a rapid attack and a slow response for a slow offensive. In push hands practice, the student is said to have crossed the threshold only when they have learned the meaning and skill of peng jin. Beginners often take years to accomplish this. While practicing, not only the hands and arms but also any part of the body that comes into contact with the other taiji player, should make use of this outward supportive or warding force.

So, using peng, a skilled practitioner not only can detect what an opponent is doing, they can neutralize it, detect the direction of vulnerability and attack through it. When this understanding is reached it is easy to see why it is considered the core skill of taijiquan.

Ding Jin

The meaning and understanding of ding is not difficult to grasp, though the practice of it takes much more time. Ding means upright or straight and ding jin means upwards pressing skill, strength or power. When beginning to learn taijiquan, loosening the body includes loosening the spine. If the body is not held upright then there will be excess muscular activity leading to stiffness. Most people do not know what it is to stand up straight. They have the habit of locking their knees, causing a tilt in the pelvis, which in turn causes their body to lean backwards. This creates significant stiffness around the spine and across the lower and mid-torso and hips.

When the body is upright (ding) then it becomes possible to loosen the spine and the waist and then the hips. If ding is not present then most likely none of these can be achieved. When the student understands and maintains ding and consistently stretches without stiffening to produce peng in their body and movements, then the circulation of qi will become evident to them. As with all things in taijiquan, this is a process, with consistent and lengthy practice producing results. More importantly this upward stretching without stiffening has the effect of lifting excess stresses off the various parts of the spine and allowing them to move freely, similar to the way traction in hospital can free the back from inappropriate strains and pressures so it can move freely.  One additional result is that the circulation to the head through the neck is improved. Consequently the movement of qi around the body becomes more noticeable. There is a famous taijiquan saying “xu ling ding jin.” Its most common English meaning is “top of the head is pulled upward as if suspended by a string” at the bai hui acupuncture point (at the rear of the crown of the head.) When the head is as if suspended or raised upward, the resulting position of the head enable it to turn freely and aids the balance of the body.

Ding can be considered the principle that dictates stretching the spine upward to understand and maintain balance, reduce stiffness and to understand and increase both peng and fang song. This basic skill is frequently first grasped in standing exercises like zhan Zhuang, where the lack of motion allows the student to focus more easily on gaining the correct balance and looseness in the body. 

Chen

Chen has two meanings in Taijiquan. The first meaning relates to how the body must “sink” to connect to the ground. The second meaning relates to how the qi must be trained to always be sunk down. These two meanings refer to two separate but closely related skills. The skill of “sinking” the body is dependent on the skill of fang song. The joints must remain loose but still coordinated together. The body is allowed to compress, either using the force of gravity or a force applied from another person. This compression must be directed down the leg without causing stiffness.

Training the qi to remain sunk is more difficult to describe. The reference to qi is difficult for many people to understand and a directive to do something with qi brings even more difficulties. The dantian (or sea of qi) must move freely first. The qi moves naturally initially. Then, as the qi increases, it must be kept sunk and not allowed to rise out of control, e.g. getting excited or emotional. It must be sunk down to flood the legs and reach the ground. These actions can be felt clearly and unambiguously, in the body and legs, when the body and legs have been trained sufficiently and properly. The combination of these two skills produces a skill that may appear unbelievable, where a significantly bigger and stronger person is unable to push over a smaller, weaker person; where someone on their back leg can simply push backwards someone opposing them on their front leg. However it is a basic skill that can be understood and developed with the correct teaching and considerable practice.

Through the skill of chen, incoming forces are directed down the legs to the ground and conversely outgoing forces are generally pushed from the ground. It requires a mobility in the hips and waist that is difficult to describe and comes from long training in the correct manner. A student must be led to it by a teacher who not only understands the skill but also how to it. For strength to be connected to the ground it must first sink to the ground. In this respect chen is closely related to peng. Without a well developed peng jin, including a mobility of the dan tian a well developed chen or root will not be possible. The outgoing force which arises and pushes from the ground is not something mystical but the result of careful training, a coordination of peng jin, a certain type of leg and body strength, and control. The body acts like a highly specialized and controlled spring. When it is compressed, the pressure goes to the ground and when it is released it pushes from the ground. A good root is essential to neutralize and release strength effectively using the internal method of Chen style taijiquan.

Understanding and developing a root is initially developed in standing (zhan zhuang) practice. Through correct standing practice peng jin and ding jin are developed along with balance and an understanding of qi. Training the body and qi to sink and remain sunk under pressure is a major focus of taiji forms. In the beginning moderated and slow movement allows the quickest route to understanding and increased skill. Sinking at the start and end of each movement is part of the process of developing chen.

Relaxing the upper body and hips and strengthening the legs is fundamental to developing a strong root. More importantly, loosing the body (fang song), particularly the hips, so your qi naturally sinks to the legs and feet, helps develop a root. The intensity of practice and the strength required increases significantly as the qi sinks more to legs and a person’s root develops. After the skills of fang songpeng and ding are understood in the body and the mind, specific rooting exercises can be used to aid the development of chen.

When rooted under pressure, the feeling is that the joints redirect in a downward direction and the joint itself may move down slightly. It should not be mistaken for lowering the body, crouching down, or simply bending the joints. To crouch down low usually provides improved mechanical leverage and requires greater leg strength. A lower stance will strengthen the legs but not necessarily develop the root. Initially the skill of chen is trained in a more upright position as it takes more skill to be lower and be rooted than to be more upright and rooted.

Chan Si  Jin

The type of motion required in taijiquan is called silk reeling or chan si. Although I list it as the fifth most important skill for beginners to pay close attention to, without chan si jin there can be no taijiquanChan si describes how the body must move to move the qi, to maintain peng jin and to co-ordinate the constant opening (kai) and closing (he) of the outside and inside of the body that taiji is composed of. Again it is not easy to describe or to understand in its entirety because it needs to be understood more by the body than by the mind. For the body to understand, it needs to be able to approximate chan si motion repetitively until its entirety is grasped. This is done through the continuous and repetitive practice initially of reeling silk exercises (chan si gong) and then, more importantly, forms (tao lu.)

For the beginner chan si gong can be considered the early training of taiji shen fa (body mechanics) in movement. By following the relatively simple choreography, in a progression from simple to more difficult, (first with one hand and then with both hands, first stationary then with steps,) the beginner will find how the body moves in circles and spirals. For the beginner the internal movement is not important. Paying attention to winding in (shun chan) and winding out (ni chan,) front circle (zheng mian) and side circle (ce mian), and normal direction (zheng) and reverse direction (fan) is sufficient. Try to move smoothly and without stiffness. Gain the skill of fang song by removing the blockages caused by stiffness in the joints. Aim to get all parts of the body to move in a circle and spiral.

This form of spiral movement not only appears on the surface of the skin, but also appears inside through the whole body. It causes every joint and limb to experience motion. Through repeated coiling and stretching in the training for a prolonged period of time, the body will naturally attain the resilient and elastic strength peng jin that is loose and yet strong at the same time. Chan si jin is the method that the body uses to move so as to retain peng jin.

In the mid 1980’s teachers from Chen Village, notably Chen Xiao Wang and Chen Zheng Lei, as well as others created silk reeling exercises (chan si gong.) These exercises were derived from important movements in the training forms to aid in the development of chan si jin. It became well established quickly as a means of teaching larger groups the basic grasp of movement in Chen style taijiquan, particularly helpful for those without regular access to direction and correction from a good teacher and whose practice time is too short to allow progress in understanding to be made immediately through the traditional forms. Although these sets of exercise may look different from teacher to teacher, they all train the same set of principles.

In this summary, I have described the five most important skills at the foundation of taijiquan for beginners. My hope is that those who wish to understand and gain the skills of taiji will be aided by these descriptions. There are three requirements needed to gain gongfu: a good teacher, good understanding and good practice. History has shown that all who have achieved a high level of skill had all three. These articles aim to help in understanding what taiji is and what its skills are. Gongfu may be translated as skill, but the idea of time spent is a more useful translation. Without developing the basic skills of fang song, peng jin, ding jin, chen, & chan si jin, progress will be limited.

In my own training with my teacher Chen Zheng Lei, these ideas were not explained to me in a theoretical way, but arrived at after long practice with regular correction and derived from experience. These were not ideas we first discussed but principles that grew out of my practice and the repeated correction from my teacher. It is important that the student understands this and does not neglect their practice. In the beginning, training taijiquan is like paddling upstream: as soon as you stop paddling you will move backwards. So train steadily and without a break with a good teacher and progress will come to you.

 

On Practice

The following is an edited selection from Master Li Yaxuan’s Tai Chi Notebooks originally published as Essential Explanations of Yang Style Tai Chi Method, translated by Matthew Miller. Mark Bernhard has made slight alterations and additions to reflect current concepts in the teaching of Grandmaster William CC Chen useful to his students.

When practicing T’ai Chi Ch’uan (TCC), one must carefully and attentively learn through experience and awareness, seeking to grasp the essential points of the form.  Usually, in a few months of doing so, one can gradually begin to realize the principles of TCC. The feeling of flexibility and agility (ling jue) in one’s body will also gradually grow stronger. This all comes from practicing on the foundation of relaxation and softness. When first beginning to study, it is difficult to experience the “flavor” (wei) of TCC but, if one is patient and persevering, after a period of time one will feel great delight. Then one can practice a hundred times without growing weary. The more one studies, the richer the flavor becomes. The more one experiences it, the more interesting it becomes, even to the point where it becomes an addiction, something one keeps for a lifetime. Thus one may attain life-long health without consciously striving for it.

In order to improve your form, you must ceaselessly reflect on its principles.  Every time you practice, you must ask yourself: How do I attain a state of relaxation, softness, and stability? How do I attain a continuous, unbroken flavor? How do I use mind instead of force? How do I maintain a centered and upright stance? How can my whole body become light and agile, as if suspended from above? How can I express energy that is relaxed and calm, yet strong? How can I express focused attention and take action without attachment to outcome, wherein “nothing is done yet nothing is left undone (wuwei)”? This is very crucial.

The reason for clearing and settling the mind is so that one may recover a state of a mind without thought, a state of body without action, a mind and body of wuwei. After wuwei, one’s heart nature becomes bright; after one’s heart nature becomes bright, perception arises naturally and spontaneously. This is what the Confucians referred to as liang zhi (intuitive, innate knowledge of right and wrong, good and evil). Liang zhi is discovered only after achieving absolute quiet; it is not found in the ceaseless chatter of thoughts and ideas. A mind rigid with thoughts is like a wall without a door: to go in or out one must break one’s way through. If I act in order to achieve some goal, then there will be a fixed opinion in my mind beforehand. In this way, I’m in danger of “being attentive to this while forgetting that,” “getting hung up on one thing while neglecting 10,000.” Thus I can be easily seduced by the exterior results of showy force, relying on the various tricks, techniques, and stratagems of the “hard” martial arts. But if you practice in a quietly observant and attentive manner, you will make much progress. It is necessary to understand this.

When practicing, you must be steady, calm, peaceful and at ease. The spirit must be composed and self-possessed. Listen and look inwardly in order to establish the union of body and mind. This is the proper attitude for practicing. If it is otherwise, although one outwardly appears to be practicing TCC, in truth of fact, one is not. The art of TCC is none other than movement and stillness, opening and closing, “falling asleep” and “waking up,” “no, no, no,” “yes, yes, yes.” But everything must be done on a foundation of steady calm; there should be no agitation, excitement, rashness or recklessness.  Although one is still, there is movement hidden in stillness. Although one is moving, there is stillness preserved in movement.  Movement and stillness: the two are rooted in each other. This is an essential principle of TCC. Continuous, soft, relaxed, like drifting clouds and flowing water, like the reeling of raw silk from a cocoon; constant and unceasing, like the incessant surging of a great river.

Before beginning a practice session, quiet the brain. Let go of all distracting thoughts, relax the body and mind, and release all tension. Only in this way can you recover that spontaneous and stable calm which is humanity’s natural state prior to being disturbed by external things. This stable calm is every person’s in-born source of inspiration. Once you are stable and calm, only then should you steadily and calmly begin to move. But while moving, you should still remain stable and calm. You should not allow this calm stability of body and mind to dissipate just because you have begun to move. This is important to remember. First relax the entire body, especially the arms. The arms should be like two ropes fastened to the shoulders, without the slightest bit of tension or strain. When beginning to move from the stable foundation arising from the passive compression in the big toe, use intention to gently raise the fingers toward their destination. This intention engages the waist and lower back and the entire body moves as a single unit to “fill the shape.” Throughout the entire form, the four limbs should never move of their own accord without the entire body moving simultaneously in unison. Without this, the body is awkward, uncoordinated and disconnected, with different parts moving independently in a fragmentary, disorganized fashion. This is not TCC but, at best, merely TCC exercise or dancing. If your movements are sloppy and undisciplined, your qi and mind will float upward and, even after a long time, one will not achieve the flavor nor receive the profound benefits of TCC.

A bowl of water spilled on the ground will spontaneously flow to the lowest point. There is no need to advocate the water flowing to any particular place.  If one advocates or holds a view that water should flow to such and such a place, this is tremendously unnatural. Do not use rigid force to push the qi down or in any particular direction. This will make the entire body uncomfortable and may even cause illness. Simply “allow” the qi to sink to the lower dan tian. How does one do this? Relax the mind, then relax the body. After both the mind and body are relaxed, the mind and qi can spontaneously and effortlessly sink. The human body is endowed with a natural tendency toward healthy function. The reason not everyone is healthy is because not everyone exercises their body in order to cultivate this innate health function. Furthermore, people trouble their minds with external things. This has destroyed their spontaneous health function. If you want to achieve health, you must first (here it comes again!) completely relax the body and mind. You must be as relaxed as a bag of bones. Only then can you respond spontaneously and unknowably to every condition. You’ll never be able to issue energy as long as you cling to any residual tension whatsoever. You must quiet the brain in order to recover the spontaneous nature of the body and mind and, thereby, regain your innate health function.

Do not just blindly exercise the external form (the body). Similarly, you also should not merely cultivate the interior (the mind) through meditating and nourishing the spirit like a monk. Give equal weight to movement and stillness. You must cultivate both the exterior and the interior equally. In addition, pay attention to daily cultivation and mastery of your spirit with positive attitude and compassion. Only then can you recover your innate health function. When practicing TCC, it is most important to relax your stance, to stabilize and calm the mind, to cultivate the power of the brain, to awaken wisdom, to deepen and lengthen the breathing, to allow the qi to sink. Every time you practice you must remember these principles. In the course of time you will make the body healthy. This is a very important point that all students must bear in mind.

Spontaneous inspiration (lingji) is our body’s most precious treasure. We rely upon this in dealing with all matters and circumstances, not just in practicing TCC or push hands. Spontaneous inspiration comes from the neurons of the brain, so TCC must first and foremost be practiced on a foundation of stable calm, in order to nourish the central nervous system. True stability and calm spontaneously arise after the heart and spirit are quiet and collected; this is not the forced, superficial calm that comes from simply restraining one’s movements. If one is merely forcing the body not to move, then one will appear stable and calm on the surface, but one’s heart one will not be calm. In this case, one is not truly calm — not at all. This false calm cannot nourish the central nervous system, and cannot produce lingji.

If one is stable, calm, peaceful and easeful, then one can cultivate the spirit. With long, deep breathing one can nourish the qi. In the course of time, the spirit and qi will naturally grow strong and substantial, and the health of the body will also improve. In TCC, “softness” refers to all parts of the body being evenly balanced, integrated, harmonized and coordinated. This softness is necessary in all aspects of TCC, both for health and fighting application. TCC is not about being able to raise the legs exceptionally high, or bend the waist to a great degree. This type of excessive flexibility lacks ling gan (spirit) and is inappropriate to the body’s natural physiology. Within the movements, one must achieve a balanced, calm and steady mental state, and a majestic, dignified qishi (posture). One must practice for a long time, building a solid foundation under the direct guidance of a teacher. Through a teacher’s analogies, demonstrations, descriptions and example, one can slowly come to realize this qishi. It is not something that can be conveyed in a couple words or described with pen and ink. This type of impressive and calm mental state arises from deep within the body and spirit; it is not something simply put on for show.

The principal way of practicing it is to use the mind/intention to move the qi, and the qi to move the body, thus your intention (yi) permeates the fingers. The four limbs must move freely. The kua is like the chassis of a car: it must be centered and upright. A relaxed, soft, sinking, stable posture, like a ship with a weighty load, heavily and steadily rolling on a river: heavy, yet at the same time, soft and flexible. Every movement is governed by the yi, no matter if one is extending or flexing, opening or closing, collecting or releasing, advancing or retreating, absorbing or sending out, containing or dispersing — all are initiated by the interaction of yi and qi. This is the difference between TCC and other martial arts. For example, when executing an opening movement, it is not only the four limbs that open, but rather the mind, yi, chest and spine must open first. When executing a closing movement, it is not only the four limbs which close, but rather the mind, yi, chest and spine must close first. All movements must begin inside and express or “flower” outward. This is TCC neigong (inner skill).

 

Tai Ji Secrets by Patrick Kelly

Tai Ji Secrets is a 1995 book by Patrick Kelly regarding the art and teaching of Master Huang XingXian (Sheng Shyan), himself a student of Cheng Man-ch’ing. It is out of print and copies are rare (one was loaned to me). A small book, it is dense with essential concepts for every practitioner of T’ai Chi Ch’uan. Due to the difficulty obtaining a copy I took many notes for later study. My notes form the basis of this brief presentation of the most salient points in the book. I hope you find it useful in your practice. I have tried to relay them as accurately as possible.

Sifu Mark Bernhard

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Progress in T’ai Chi Ch’uan (TCC) is not in learning more techniques, no matter how esoteric, but from delving deeply into the few basic principles. It is in the depths and subtlety that the “secrets” are revealed. Master Huang: “To know 100% about one move is to know 100% about all moves.” On learning: “Fast is slow and slow is fast.” In Daoist philosophy: “Water the roots and the flower will appear by itself.”

The meaning of “T’ai Chi” (TC) comes from the Daoist philosophy of ancient China. Chinese characters can be interpreted in many ways. Some interpretations of TC are: Everything in existence; the Mother of all things; the Field in which Yin and Yang play; the Earth. It is often translated in its most literal meaning as “the Supreme Ultimate.” Ch’uan can be translated as “fist,” “exercise,” or “action.” It is usually translated as “fist,” indicating a fighting art. Master Huang said: “I don’t teach TCC, just TC, the practical philosophical system of self refinement and character transformation.” He believed the most important aspects are the ones that change ourselves, rather than those affecting someone else (like issuing energy or “Jing”). It is necessary for the self-defense side of TCC but not especially relevant in modern society. Huang: “If you want to defend yourself, buy a gun. Why spend 20 years just for that minor purpose.” Patrick Kelly adds: “I believe all the main benefits to be gained from TC could be attained without ever learning to issue Jing.” According to Huang, TCC has three reasons for being: 1) a physical exercise that goes beyond development of speed, strength, and endurance; 2) a martial art where yielding is the central principle and offensive force is returned to offender; and 3) a system of psychological and spiritual development that centers on the concepts of balance, naturalness, as well as transcending all concepts. All three use the method of refining, through strengthening and quieting the body, energy (qi), and the mind. This, in time, produces an alignment with Spirit that generates its own individual path.

A balanced approach to practice automatically encompasses all the valid reasons for studying TC­–health maintenance/improvement, personality transformation, and spiritual cultivation. The benefit from the effort to practice is proportionately derived from the level of motivation, attention, and intention.

Relaxation is the central basic requirement for success. The phases of “relaxation” are: 1) loosening in the popular sense of allowing muscles to release through stretching and simple swinging/shaking movements; 2) Sinking is more concerned with mind and similar to falling asleep; 3) Emptying appears as sinking nears completion.

Qi (energy/life force) is possessed by all living things but consciously refined by only a few. It should circulate freely in body and its accumulation in certain centers occurs completely naturally and spontaneously as the consequence of the correct use of Mind. The TC Classics states: “Concentrate on the Yi (Deep Mind Intention), not the Qi. To concentrate on the Qi leads to stagnation.” Yi is the active aspect of the mind. The passive aspect is awareness (Ting Jing = Listening Ability)–the awareness of changing sensations, first inside body, later in the surroundings. Along with the relief that permeates our life as a result of relaxation, this ever strengthening, expanding and more subtle Mind Field of awareness comprises the most important benefit TCC generates in the first 10-15 years of practice. After, with correct instruction, the intention aspect of the mind begins to assume at least equal relevance.

When “whole body listening” begins to take over, there are no longer just correct positions to arrive at or even half-way positions to pass through. Attention must shift to the process of changing continuously, so that each of the many thousands of small changes produce a new Mind/Energy/Body position equally as important as the final named posture. Motor nerves (efferent/outbound) that respond to the Yi, and sensory (afferent/inbound) are a biofeedback system. Each requires its own training but concentrating on the awareness and correctness of the constant flow of small changes within the Form trains both. Subtle awareness and subtle control are the two main aspects of TC developed by the solo Form. The greater our effort of deep awareness and careful intentional changing, the deeper our ability in these two will become. Roughness and carelessness of attention lead on a completely different path.

While a deliberate intention can be used to initiate a movement, holding the intention once the movement actually begins will interfere with the natural development of that movement. Don’t try to push the arrow once you have let it fly from the bow. Sudden expression of power is practiced thusly: From a quiet, concentrated state allow the awareness to move from the point of focused power in the body to the precise place of impact, creating a dynamic link between those two points, not always a straight line, and naturally capable of changing interactively with the position of the points. Next comes the most important but more difficult step. Allow all “wish to move” the real or imagined opponent to dissolve away, leaving only the faith that from this emptying state the correct movement and result will appear, seemingly under its own volition. Mostly and astonishingly, it will.

All fluids move in waves. Forces pass through fluids by the production of waves. Avoid hard Jing (tensing). Don’t “try to relax” just “don’t tense.” “When the body is under the influence of a force, its aligned structure tends to deform and any attempts to retain this structure requires producing resistance. It is clear this can be avoided when yielding, by moving the whole body out of the way, but then there are still the deforming forces produced by the inertia and momentum of the body. These forces can be considerable when movement is fast. Fluids of course do not attempt to retain their rigid structure, simply changing their shape while remaining connected.” In Form, the upper portion should feel like drifting clouds and the lower like flowing water. Consciousness is continuous and harmonized with movement. Natural and unified. No question of fast or slow.

Kelly teaches Form this way: initial movement occurs with the field of Mind or Yi. Then the Energy Body or Field of Qi protracts and stretches like elastic. This then pulls on the body, stopping, reversing, and then drawing it along. More practice makes it more real. Push Hands is the same but harder: when my Mind moves, my partner’s Mind experiences this pull although perhaps they are not aware of it. Their Field of Qi experiences both the pull from my Energy Field and from their pulled Mind. Their Body experiences both my movement and the pull from their Energy Field. The stronger my Yi, the stronger the effect on my partner. The more subtle my Yi, the less likely they will know what’s happening. But until you train it for many years, it will have no more substance than simple belief. Drop/drain/sink the body and let go of the arms as if they are no longer yours. Don’t think of going forward/pushing out but, rather, gathering and deepening. Get rid of every motivation to “move” the other. Huang: “Use the body to neutralize if possible, leaving the hands free to issue Jing.”

Yin and Yang are opposites, each transforming into the other naturally. To first relax, then tensing to deliver force, is the hallmark of external martial arts, not TCC. It is Yang springing from within the Yin, simultaneous to it, that produces, at that moment, a new type of force that is the solution and the basis of TCC and its power. The ideal is Jing (relaxed elastic force utilizing Qi and motivated by the Mind) that passes through the body in a wave of stretching while the practitioner, under the stress of an aggressive incoming force, is so internally relaxed that every muscle in the body elongates/stretches under that pressure, rather than contract and shorten in tense resistance. Patrick Kelly, observing Master Huang, writes that there was a delay between his hands making contact and the “push” and that at the moment of transmission of Jing his hand actually withdrew toward his own body while accelerating the opponent back! The Jing is motivated by Yi, energized by the Qi, issued from Root and transmitted through the body in a wave of stretching muscle. A stretching muscle is ten times stronger than a contracting muscle, whose force decreases with increasing speed of contraction, while the force of the stretching muscle increases as the speed of stretching increases. This is the secret and allows the most important thing to happen–mind relaxation.

Tai Chi Classics states the Jing is stored like the bending of a bow. The bow does not relax; it bends. The fibers of the bow resist this bending and are stretched, just as the muscles of the body are stretched. There is a big difference between the use of strength and the use of Jing. You want Jing that combines with stretching muscle to draw out the other person’s Jing rather than block it. This drawing out creates an unintentional tensing in the partner leading to their own contracting muscles throwing themselves off your firm, sinking, coordinated posture. Not relax, then tense (separating Yin and Yang in time) but, rather, separating them in space without tensing.

So, issuing power is not from muscular exertion/contraction or physically surging towards another person; this is merely coordinated brute force. Nor does it come from simply turning the waist or hips. TC Classics states that the movement about the central axis is correctly used to direct force, not generate it. This external horizontal circle can produce great power, but still is no different than that of many hard styles of Gongfu—it is not TCC. The vertical circle (through the floor) is the source of all power, an internal circle produced by the alternation of Yin and Yang within the Deep Mind. Huang: “When the Yang Body is still moving left, Yin Body is already going back to the right.” Kelly posits that the Yin Body is Yi-Qi (energy/intention) Body and the Yang Body is the physical body and that Yi (Deep Mind Intention) is the central player, the key to success, in TCC. Small errors in its use can prevent good progress.

The Relaxed Elastic Force is comprised of: 1) timing 2) direction and 3) sufficient supply. In Push Hands, the first two change constantly and are determined by our partner, not us. They involve the passive aspect of the Deep Mind (Higher Abstract Mind) from which issues the deep awareness. The third factor relies on the active aspect of Deep Mind, which provides the impulse for the generation of Yi or intention to act. The link between the first two allows the possibility of this conscious response. The three function simultaneously, each adjusting continuously according to changes in the other two. If you practice with reliance on strength or speed you will never arrive at this. Cheng Man-ch’ing stated that to go against someone like a ball and bounce them back is not correct—they must first be drawn in, only then bounced away. This principle concerns the forces from the partner that act through our own body and mind, not the weight of our own body. The theory of separating Yin and Yang is concerned with Neutralizing incoming forces. Yielding and Issuing require different methods, although the three may overlap or take place simultaneously: #1 Yielding  (Yin/Yin)  #2 Neutralizing  (Yin/Yang)  #3 Issuing (Yang/Yang). #1 draws in the partner’s mind, weakening their root. #2 changes their mind, entering their root. #3 follows their mind, returning their force to destroy their root.

When our partner forms an intention to move, his body becomes committed for a short time to generating the strength required for that move. Though his body may still be relatively relaxed, for that moment there is one direction in which we can generate resistance. But first there must be a slight withdrawal that allows his movement to fall on emptiness. When our partner’s mind experiences this emptiness, it immediately reverses its intention in a subconscious reaction. While attempting not to overshoot and fall into the perceived “hole.” Almost invariably the partner will extend his arms for support. This is what we have been waiting for and by sinking to lead this force from his arms to the ground, we form the connection through which our Relaxed Elastic Force can issue. This all happens in an instant.

The concept of Peng does not equal structure or framework (a similar Chinese character). If you base your taiji on this understanding of peng, your whole TCC will be incorrect. Peng Jing is over the whole body and is used to measure the strength and direction of the partner’s force (similar to Buckminster Fuller’s Tensegrity concept), but it is incorrect to offer any resistance. It should be lighter than a feather; like water that can equally support the weight of a floating leaf or a ship. Peng Jing is sensitivity. The movement should come up from the ground like a wave. Leading with Emptiness rather than Yi is the unconscious generation of Yi as a response to the changes in the surrounding conditions. In Push Hands, it’s the partner’s intention and action that combine with TC principles within us to produce the changes. Mind leads, body follows, but eventually there should be no intention but “the correct thing just happens by itself naturally, as in meditation.” In life, it is whatever occurs in a general sense impinging on our Deep Mind or Spiritual aspect that reflects a natural energy impulse according to our own Essential Nature. The whole circle of Yield, Neutralize, Issue is performed in this sense and ends with the person being thrown but with ourselves possessing no sense of having performed the throw and them feeling as if they have thrown themselves. “This is not to be confused with the simple automatic response of a trained technique that, while useful, is no greater an achievement than learning to ride a bicycle.”

The art of TC is based on four balances or equilibriums: 1) balance in the magnitude of the posture or movement such as both sides of the body must have a “balanced” amount of spatial displacement when moving, 2) accuracy or precision achieved simultaneously by all parts of the body, 3) bodily balance when moving or turning, 4) steadiness particularly when moving.

TC principles: Full concentration, no distraction. Three points of non-mobility: 1)head locked onto body, 2) hands don’t move of their own volition, 3) soles of feet still and rooted to ground. Steps are made without affecting or moving the body. Consciousness/Yi (intent) will lead Qi but turning begins in the waist and hips propelling the hands.

You reach the position of “non-self” where the whole body is the weapon and hands are no longer used as hands. Without mastering the essentials, there is no point in talking about application of the movements.

Students must start with understanding the Dao or philosophy, then the principles, then using the correct method, and finally putting in the effort. Rootedness will result and the method of practice will be understood. Being rooted and having internal force can never be observed externally. Joints must be loose but linked, whole body relaxed but not easily pushed. Distinguish substantial from insubstantial. Flexible and pliable like a snake—wherever he is attacked, the rest of him responds. It is easier to lift a 200 lb bar than a 100 lb chain.

Body and character are trained together as is the acquisition of the Dao and the art. Dao is likened to Yin while the art or skill is Yang. Yang is evolved from Yin at Yin’s completion. Being relaxed, stillness and being rooted become Yin components. Neutralization of force forms the basic foundation where no strength is used. Stillness is like that of the mountain. No change is seen, but it is capable of infinite change. “Dao is the basis, the art is consequential.” Acquire Dao by learning not to resist, for only then will the body learn to be obedient. In attacking and defending, one must understand the method, then acquire insubstantiality and quietude. Only then will the defense be solid. Attacking will be successful as one is naturally comfortable. In Push Hands, achieve non-resistance and stickiness. With stickiness comes neutralization. With adequate reserves, neutralizing ability is applied with an involuntary exertion of internal force.

Yi is intention or will. In modern usage it is mind. Heart/mind or subtle awareness commands the Yi, the Yi moves the Qi, the Qi the body. Qi generally refers to energy of the Etheric (Energy) Body. It is within and surrounding the body, like a penetrating cloud. But Qi is a passive player and in TC it is the activation of Yi that is central, at least in the beginning stages. There are three overlapping phases of Yi-Qi coordination:

Phase 1) Relax the mind and body to some extent, releasing constrictions on energy pathways and allowing smooth and natural flow and circulation within the energy body, with positive benefits to health. This is useful for those practicing meditation or other psycho-spiritual methods where the stress induced by the necessary step of confronting their inner conflict can grossly distort their energy field.

Phase 2) Occurs after 4-10 years of TCC practice (or the student may just continue to repeat phase 1 for 30 years!) In phase 1, the Yi has been passive and sense of body has been building up. Now what is required is the active use of the Yi to stimulate the flow and concentration of the Qi within and closely surrounding the body and to motivate the movement of the body itself. Must not emphasize observation over activation, tension from issuing Yi from the shallow part of the mind rather than deeper part, or Yi that is too passive due to emphasizing the connection into the emotional feeling of the movement rather than simply into the sensations themselves. Every part of TCC requires the resolving of the dilemma existing between: control and letting go; concentration and emptying of the mind; softness and coordinated strength; leading and following; Yin and Yang. The solution is not more or less Yin or Yang but introducing the Yin-Yang, a new creation generated at the point of correct balance of two independently existing opposites.

Phase 3) The ultimate phase of Yi-Qi coordination (arising, perhaps, after 20 years, but glimpses can be seen from day one) in which every movement becomes an intelligent response to the perceived situation. Yi seems to disappear and cognition spontaneously produces the appropriate action (Daoist ideal). Perception is through the five senses and, of those, touch connects most closely to Qi; the other senses being modifications of “touching” the environment. It is the training in the awareness of the sense of being touched at every point of the body, internally and externally, that allows the inner being to project a more correct model of its surroundings and respond to it in a more subtle way. Phase 3 occurs when the subtle trained awareness of sensations and subtle trained Yi disappear within each other. At this stage one merely becomes subtly aware of the stimulus and an intelligently appropriate spontaneous response occurring at the same moment, containing no intention of doing the action.

It is important to differentiate between the immaterial Qi and bodily sensations generated by its circulation and concentration. Heat and tingling are generated when the flow of life force through a channel is blocked, like resistance in a wire. Mind/Yi is applied voltage while the current is akin to flow of Qi/energy. So sensations, often taken as remarkable, merely indicate areas of restriction. In time, the gentle heat will burn through the problem areas, establishing the ability for free and potent energy flows.

“While Spirit is ultimate, it is the Mind that must travel the Way.” Spirit is already there and the body, including the brain, is merely the tool of the Mind. At death, nothing dies. The Mind simply abandons the body. Energy follows the Mind and the Body is left de-energized. Spirit is never in the Body and does not have to leave it; rather, the Body existed within Spirit.

 

 

Staying Rooted: Insights on How to Handle Stress Using T’ai Chi

By Milton Huang, M. D.

Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, Monday September 6, 2004

The world seems to get more hectic and complex every day. We are being bombarded by a multitude of different ideas, different cultures and different conflicts. New technologies change our jobs and our relationships with instant messages, instant demands and instant expectations. Everything seems to keep accelerating, moving increasingly faster.

These are the feelings that bring people to my door and keep me busy in my job as a psychiatrist. Everyone is stressed, even in “laid-back” Santa Cruz.

Part of my job is to help people find relief from that stress. Although some relief can be found through herbs, medications or other substances, I find that more lasting relief comes when people recognize patterns in themselves that contribute to their stress, then engage in a sustained effort to redirect those internal forces.

This is not easy, and is sometimes even stressful in itself, but it is a lot healthier and allows greater flexibility in the long run.

Understanding Stress

Stress is not a one-way street that the outside world uses to make deliveries to our door. It is a dynamic response to the conditions of our lives. When we feel stressed, we often make it worse by worrying about it, blaming ourselves for not being “good enough,” or simply tensing up and carrying the tension around in a defensive stance.

I have learned this not only through talking to my patients, but also through my own experience. Stress, and specifically anxiety, is a visceral body reaction. Few other emotions remind us so directly that mind and body are inseparably connected.

We feel our anxiety in our clenched guts and thumping hearts. We get physical aches and pains. Our hands get cold or sweaty. Yet, this connection between mind and body is generally automatic and unconscious.

When we are able to look at ourselves and perceive how these body reactions are tied to our feelings about our lives, one is struck by the fact that mind and body are not only connected, but connected in a way we often cannot control.

Anxiety reactions can seem to come out of nowhere or appear completely disproportionate to any rational assessment of the danger of a particular situation. Learning how to manage these reactions is difficult and sometimes counterintuitive. I find it a constant personal challenge, as well as a professional one.

The Mind-Body Connection

Although I have been trained in multiple therapeutic techniques and theories, I constantly look for ideas and approaches to better manage and resolve anxiety. In the last year-and-a-half, I have explored one such approach in t’ai chi ch’uan, or tai chi.

This ancient discipline can teach a broad range of self-awareness and self-connection skills that help a person understand and manage many physical and emotional issues.

So what is tai chi?

Those with a passing acquaintance immediately visualize a group of people moving in slow motion in a park in the early morning hours. My earlier impressions were primarily derived from such images, as well as various readings in Chinese philosophy.

Yet, tai chi is not simply beautiful, slow movement. It is a highly refined and sophisticated martial art and self-development discipline. My current understanding comes from regular training with a local teacher, Greg Brodsky.

A martial artist since 1960, Brodsky studied with two of the most renowned tai chi masters in the United States, Cheng M’an-Ching and William C.C. Chen.

Now in his 60s, Brodsky’s emphasis is on practical body mechanics with exquisite awareness and practical cultivation of energy through the body. He always employs a characteristic gentle and humorous style, emphasizing the mental and emotional aspects in every lesson.

Mind-Body Mechanics

One of these basic lessons is called “rooting.” In this part of tai chi, one seeks to develop a solid grounding of self to the earth, keeping your feet on the ground, your feelings open and your mind clear and focused.

Attention moves through the body from earth to foot to legs to center to hands. You begin to be aware of the constant relationship of how you physically support yourself, how different parts of your body are interconnected and how your efforts and intentions can hinder or enhance that support and connection.

You also become more aware of the natural flow of motion and energy through the body and how these flow through our connection to the world around us. The physical background for such lessons is practice of the form – a series of 60 movements that takes 10 to 15 minutes.

As I move through these steps, I maintain awareness from moment to moment of where I am and how I am moving. Such attention has shown me how unconscious tensions are always present in different places in my body.

Although being aware of how tense I am often makes me even more tense (since I know that I “need to relax”), the process of being immersed in the flow of tai chi helps reduce the tendency to make those judgments and self-criticisms.

Brodsky and his wife and co-teacher, Ching, work to create a training space where there are no “good” or “bad” moves, encouraging their students to just recognize their self-generated stress patterns and cultivate new ones.

These efforts have taught me that the main barriers to a comfortable inner state and competent tai chi practice are emotional. It is through learning your own emotional “root” and center that you can begin to recognize your own strengths and boundaries and feel a greater comfort in letting go and relaxing.

This in turn allows us to release the energy we waste in defensive stances and to better connect with everything around us.

This process creates an energized and dynamic relaxation that is not passive, but rather alive with a power that comes from our connection to the energy all around us. Although I am only a novice in learning these skills, I can understand what Greg means when he quotes his first teacher, Cheng M’an-Ching: “Stillness while in motion is true stillness.”

Push Hands

These lessons become even more clear in another part of tai chi that is not as widely known: Push Hands.

Push Hands practice extends the body awareness and connection developed in solo practice to a situation in which one interacts with another person.

In this exercise, two people face each other and, within safe boundaries, attempt to push each other off balance.

As in form practice, one strives to maintain a constant grounding and balance, as well as a smooth and natural flow – this time in coordination between two different individuals.

To be successful, one must pay close attention to their partner’s actions and intentions. You quickly learn that single-minded pursuit of the idea of pushing with aggressive force makes you vulnerable because your force can be used against you.

It is from knowing and blending with your partner’s moves that you can learn how to recognize and redirect them in a natural and flowing way.

Tai chi practitioners call this “listening.” I find that, with Push Hands as with the tai chi form, anxious emotions create the greatest barrier to progress.

I have become acutely aware of how I tense or overreact when I sense a push coming, thereby wasting energy or making myself more vulnerable.

I also see how I inhibit my own pushes and reflexively become passive, failing to push when I should. These are the same emotional reflexes that I always carry with me, whether I’m playing with my kids or working with a patient.

In the exercise of Push Hands, I have a dynamic arena where I can learn to recognize and change unconscious patterns of behavior – an essential part of growing to be a better father and therapist.

Less Stress

Personally, I have found my work in tai chi to be challenging, yet an important path that continues to provide me opportunities to grow emotionally.

The emotional self is always difficult to change, as it resists with a legion of deceptive devices. Obvious symptoms such as stress activate us and draw us into looking for immediate relief, sometimes leading us to miss the larger patterns of how we become trapped in our lives.

I always encourage people to look to the larger picture and not rely on the quick fixes that are becoming all too easily available in modern society.

The healthiest ways to reduce stress are the ones that last. Stress is often a sign that we are challenged by the task of uniting our physical, intellectual and emotional selves.

It is from discontinuities between these selves that we often create our personal lifelong traps that can repeatedly drain us.

Recognizing these traps and resolving these discontinuities form an ongoing, lifetime work that is essential for health and for living fully.

Each person is unique, with unique background, unique talents and a unique path to tread.

Some find assistance in such a task through spiritual practice. Others through psychotherapy or disciplines like tai chi.

If you seek new ways to find how to connect to your mind and body, you should consider finding a teacher or “sifu” and discover what this ancient practice can do for you.

Copyright © 2008 Milton Huang All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2008 Milton Huang All rights reserved.