Study the internal arts of
"The Qi should be stimulated and the
Spirit gathered within"
The art of Taijiquan
Most people practise Taijiquan for its recognised health benefits. Within Lotus Nei Gong we study Taijiquan as an authentic practice (a practice that has an unbroken lineage and has not been simplified) meaning that we are not just studying the art for its health benefits but also the principles that make it the deep profound art that it was intended to be. Although health is obviously very important, it's seen more as a by-product within traditional practice, something that develops because of the practice. However, if it wasn't for the health aspects then maybe we would never have heard of Taijiquan today. Neither do we study Taijiquan purely as a martial art: we are more likely to die from stress related illnesses than from physical violence. I believe the correct balance is sought by understanding both aspects of this art. This approach has a positive effect on our Xing or Nature so we can overcome our inner conflicts, whatever they may be, that lead to emotional, energetic and physical disharmonies.
There are many different thoughts on how Taijiquan was developed and by whom. One of the most popular theories is that the Daoist monk and immortal, Zhang San-Feng, developed it in the Wudang mountains in the 11th Century. Taijiquan is usually translated as ‘Grand Ultimate’ but it could also be ‘the motive force of Creation’, ‘Yin/Yang Harmony Boxing’ or ‘Extreme singularity boxing’. Within it’s history, Taijiquan has been influenced by many different disciplines, such as Martial arts, Medicine, Philosophy and Alchemical studies, but also by Daoist, Confucianist and Buddhist thought. Many aspects of Chinese culture have been influenced by the philosophy of Yin/Yang theory, including Taijiquan.
‘The Taiji Classics’ are a set of writings on Taijiquan by a collection of past masters. Unless you have access to an authentic system these classics don’t really make much sense. We can’t understand them by using the same logic as external type arts using muscles to generate power. This is known as dull force or Li. The classics are talking about something much deeper and you need a key to unlock them. Then as you study the art and ponder the text they will start to reveal themselves to you. If you are going to study Taijiquan seriously then the way ahead is difficult and full of obstacles. In my opinion it’s not just effort that is required to learn Taijiquan, it’s finding the correct path to guide you through a maze of dead ends. Finding an authentic lineage/teacher that knows the way is everything. Once you have found the path it’s up to you how far you want to walk along it. Personally, I would rather walk a path that was difficult and stretches far ahead out of sight than an easier one where I can see the end.
The Yi Jin Jing
The Yi Jin Jing or Sinew Changing Classic is a very old classical text which describes how to transform the body in order to prepare it for higher cultivation work. It found it’s way into most authentic Qi Gong systems and internal arts such as Taijiquan. In Lotus Nei Gong this classic is an important instructional guide for us to follow and influences our practice massively, working on principles such as sinking, the use of the ‘Kua’, the connection of the fascia, the balance and tensegrity of the body and the Six Harmonies, plus the all-important qualities of Song and Ting.
The qualities of Song and Ting
In authentic Taijiquan, (not competition or simplified Tai Chi) true power and skill comes not from the outer shapes which would be the same as any other external martial art, it comes from the development of the internal ‘Jins’ (inner force), which is why Taijiquan is known as an internal art. This process is sometimes referred to as ‘steel wrapped in cotton’. We still learn the outer shapes but eventually they are just a conduit for the internal force. Obviously to develop such a high level skill (Taijiquan sets the bar very high from the start) takes dedication and perseverance to achieve.
As a martial art it’s not application based as such, although of course it’s rooted in martial traditions. Instead we develop qualities, and the two most important are, Song (release or letting go) and Ting (absorption or awareness). The sequence is a series of postures that are linked together in an unbroken chain. We open (Kai) and close (He) internally (not externally) as we move through the postures. The challenge is to stay with the qualities and develop the internal Jins as you move. If we are overly focused then the mind is too strong and stops the process of release. If we daydream through the movements then the mind is too slack and again we disconnect from these two qualities. The aim is to balance the mind between these two extremes, very challenging indeed.
I personally believe that Yang style as a martial art, which is one of the most practised styles in the world for health, hides its power and is very sophisticated. Some styles are easier to see where the power comes from.
Taijiquan should not be about which style is best, or how good it looks from the outside, it's about the qualities and principles that we develop internally. Imagine a new car: it may look lovely from the outside but when you go to drive it you find it has no engine and no internal mechanics, so is it still a car if it can't take you from A to B? Taijiquan may look elegant from the outside, but unless we have the correct principles and internal qualities in my opinion it's not Taijiquan, just a set of movements.
Look at it another way: imagine you want some water to drink. Your focus is on the water, but you need a container or vessel to hold the water; it doesn’t matter what style of vessel just that you have the water. Now let’s say the water is the essence of internal change or Taiji and the glass is the style of Taijiquan. We should be focusing on the water, yes, but unfortunately today it seems that people are more interested with the glass and how good it looks and consequently believe they are practising ‘real’ taijiquan when in fact they are only making shapes on the outside.
"All authentic traditions, whether it’s Taijiquan or Qi Gong have at their core, standing postures"
Various aspects of study
Most people would say Taijiquan is the sequence, that is what they are familiar with, the slow graceful movements. But there are other important aspects of study that we practice. All authentic traditions, whether it’s Taijiquan or Qi Gong have at their core standing postures. Ding Shi or standing plus Zhan Zhuang (standing on stake) is an important aspect along with Ji Ben Gong exercises to develop the internal transformation or Hua. Then of course there is Tui Shou or push hands and also meditative sitting practices. If you want to run a marathon you don’t do it on day one, you build the body so it’s transformed into a ‘marathon runner’s body’. If you want to be a body builder, you don’t lift the heaviest weight on day one, you build the body over time and follow a healthy diet so it’s transformed into a ‘body-builder’s body’. Taijiquan is no different: we have to build the Taijiquan body. Taijiquan is not about relaxing and going all limp and weak. We relax yes, but it should make you stronger the more you train. The principles from the Yi Jin Jing show us how to develop this internal power, which is not just good for martial purposes but also very good for lasting health, and not in a superficial way.
For health, starting with the first form.
We start with the short 37 posture sequence from the tradition and principles of Master Huang Xingxian. This form has a number of benefits including: the small tissues become soft and pliable allowing our fascia to slide over our organs more easily. We relax the major muscle groups, our tendons are lengthened and our joints are opened to allow the Qi to flow through them. The correct alignments and connections within our body take the strain off our joints, and the slow continuous movements relax the body, soothe and nourish the internal organs, lower stress and help boost our immune system.
This is the foundation level and generally takes students about three years of regular study to understand to a basic degree. At this stage we start to develop the two most important qualities in Taijiquan: Song, (release or letting go) and Ting (absorption or awareness). Students who are interested in the health aspects can stay at this stage if they wish, whilst others may want to move into the more challenging aspects of martial development and the internal development of jin through a much deeper understanding of Song and Ting and sinking or Chen. This study takes us through a cultivation process harmonising the physical, energetic and consciousness bodies. Your focus at the start is maybe just to feel healthier, but as you progress and you feel better your focus may change into wanting a deeper understanding of this amazing art. The art of Taijiquan is the continuous unfolding of qualities we are acquiring, going deeper and deeper: there is no end.
As a martial art, moving into the second form.
As we progress over a number of years in our study we develop an energetic sinking that creates a strong connection to the earth through the feet, allowing us to yield to an oncoming force though our body not by moving out of the way or noodling, that’s too simple. The second form follows Yang Shao Hou principles. This develops ‘Silk Reeling’ and Fa Jin through Peng.
Through the continuous practice of fundamental principles and the form we create an internal pressure which is then issued through Fa Jin (internal force), creating a powerful 'unbroken' force that doesn't rely on muscles or Li, which are regarded as dull power in the internal arts. This is what the classics call 'steel wrapped in cotton’. But in Taijiquan terms Fa Jin is only the start, you have entered the door. Of course this is not easy and takes a lot of time to develop, but as the old adage goes ‘it’s not the destination, it’s the journey’.
Balancing our Heart/Mind, with the sword or Jian form.
Moving into the third stage of practice we aim to refine our Yi or Intent and bring energy to the sword. The Shen or spirit is expressed through the heart and the movements of the blade. The skill of the Jian is the highest level form we practise.
To move through these three forms is not like an external art where you learn something then get an exam and move on up to the next grade. In Taijiquan you can only move ahead if you manifest the internal changes, otherwise you’re not ready and need to understand more. This then becomes a serious life-long study to acquire Gong (skill).
A deeper level of understanding is attained when we practise Tui Shou or Push Hands, a sensitivity drill with a partner to test ones structure, and more importantly to test our Song and Ting ability. Push hands is not a ‘pushing competition’ or a wrestling match, it’s a high-level skill and is a very important part of why Taijiquan is regarded as the jewel in the crown of Chinese arts.
The key to a deep and profound understanding of Taijiquan is found in Yin Yang theory and the classics. It is stated that Taijiquan has eight key energies or qualities. They are: Peng (Expanding force), Lu (Contracting force), Ji (Horizontal force), An (Suppressing force), Cai (Plucking force), Lie (Splitting force), Zhou (Elbow force) and Kao (Bumping force). These eight energies can be utilised in push hands practice and later in an advanced stage - combat situations, where their use can take on an abstract form quite different from most martial arts, following the maxim of Stick, Adhere, Join and Follow, but again these are very high level skills and hard to attain.