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).