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
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.