How to Master the Practice of Taijiquan
Translators note: Whilst every care has been taken to translate this article as accurately as possible, the language gap between Classical Chinese and Contemporary English is quite vast. Therefore any translating errors remain solely the responsibility of myself and do not reflect the author.
If one wishes to master the practice of Taijiquan, one must first understand the meaning of ‘Wuji’. To truly realise the inner meaning of Taijiquan, one must discern its philosophy and principles and perform ones practice according to these. Then only after a long period of disciplined training will one come to grasp the essence of Taijiquan.
To learn Taijiquan the first thing to do is to practice ‘Taiji gong’. This is to practice the fundamentals of Taiji ‘Neigong’. It is said that the special skill to practicing Taijiquan are “to practice Taiji we must first start from understanding ‘Wuji’ and with diligent practice will come the realisation of ‘Yin’and ‘Yang’”. Because of this, before the commencing of practicing the form, one must first conduct some exercises into ‘Taiji Gongfa’ (Taiji Laws / Principles). For example, to practice ‘Taiji Zhuanggong’ (standing exercise), one will gradually come to realise the silencing and peace of ones heart/mind and following will be a feeling as if the inside of ones body is void and it is only the hands that are being held out as if holding a balloon and the legs will be ‘forgotten’ as if not there. When practicing ‘Taiji gong’ there must be a feeling that one is not breathing but is still in control of the breath and allowing the breath to be natural, long and deep and using the mind to direct the ‘Qi’ to certain parts of the body.
Whilst experiencing this ‘Wuxing’ (no form / intangibility), one will slowly feel the energy in ones body circulating throughout. With long and continual practice it will be found that ones strength will be greater than before and ones ‘Qi’ (inner ‘breath and essence’) will increase with each passing day of practice. These above points will help one in forming a solid foundation in the mastery of the practice of Taijiquan.
I: The Five Stages Of Practicing Taijiquan
The first stage is to learn the Taijiquan form and to correctly master its postures and movements. But what is meant by correct postures? It does not matter whether it be static or moving postures, from the start to the end, one must adhere to the following: Have the feeling as if the crown of the head is lifted from above; the chin should be slightly inclining toward the breastbone; the shoulders should be relaxed and the arms should fall naturally to ones side; the backbone should be kept straight with the chest very slightly inclining inwards; the hips must be relaxed and the buttocks pulled a little inwards and; the hips and shoulders should be in line and the spine vertical to the ground which in turn should bring about a naturally comfortable feeling. Whilst in motion, whether it be back, forward, left, right or turning, all movements must come from the hips but the hips should not sway from side to side otherwise the body will come out of alignment. Whilst moving forward or backward, one must keep the centre of gravity low and a also a constant height during the form in that the body must not move from a low level to a high level and back again etc. In this first stage of practice, with gradual training one must let the arms become ‘lighter’ and the legs be placed definitely but lightly.
With the second stage of practice, it is most important to place the strength in the roots of the feet. The principles of Taijiquan say, “the roots are in the feet”. So how can one place the power in the feet? The specific way of practice, again regardless of whether moving forward or back, left or right or turning, one must place the weight at the feet and then (‘deng jiao’) first pressing downwards then lifting the foot up (as if compressing a iron spring) to move forward, back, left, right etc. Moreover, when pivoting on the heel the force of the movement must be opposite to the direction the heel is pivoting. This way the hips will follow the movement of the pivot and the hips will lead the body in its movement. With the passing of a long period of practice the whole body will become progressively relaxed, alive and nimble and the body’s energy will come from the feet and the counteraction of the pivot movement. Once this second phase has been achieved, one can then place the force at the base of the feet. The principles of Taijiquan say, “the force (jing) comes from the base of the feet, to dictate the waste”. Note that the waste is inclusive of the very lower spine area and can also mean the hips.
In the third stage of practice, ‘Fajing’ (expressing energy) is the main objective. ‘Rou xing qi, gang luo dian’ which basically means that when expressing the energy it is very soft until the last moment and then the energy becomes very hard like iron. With the coming to expressing ones energy of each movement of the form, the two feet must ‘deng jiao’ – first press into the ground for the energy to come through, as mentioned earlier, something like the pressing of a spring to release its energy. For example, when expressing energy in a forward direction, the crown of the head must be as if lifted from above, the waste must be relaxed and the spine ‘tail’ must be inclined slightly forward, whilst the lower spine must be inclined slightly back. The shoulders should be relaxed and the elbows should be facing downward. At the time of expressing ones energy (fajing) the body components must all act together and as if like an iron spring being compressed, it is until the very last moment ones energy can be released, with the body moving in an opposite / back from the direction that ones energy is being expressed. The whole body should feel as though it is being stretched out as if like (five) bows ready to be fired. One bow is at the legs, one at the waist, one at the shoulders, one at the elbows and one bow at the wrist and hands. At this time the eyes must look far outwards in a forward direction so as if to express the explosive energy very far outwards. “Using your mind to express the energy far outwards will in turn let your energy actually be expressed far outwards”. When practising the form, each movement must be performed in this way of using the mind to express the energy far outward.
For the fourth stage, after a certain period of the practice of ‘fajing’ (explosive energy), it is best to have an experienced teacher to test that ones ‘fajing’ technique is correct. The teacher will ‘try’ the students ‘jing’ (energy) to see if the student is in fact using the whole body correctly to express this explosive energy. That is, to verify that the feet are acting like a spring when expressing ones energy, the waist is indeed twisting to transfer the energy, the shoulders are being ‘urged’ forward by the energy, the arms and elbows are being ‘sent’ forward and at the moment the energy reaches the wrist and hands is being expressed into the ‘hard’ energy. If this energy can or not in fact be transmitted through to the teacher’s body will indicate if the student has mastered ‘fajing’ technique and thus this fourth stage.
To test this ‘fajing’ is to see if one has mastered Taijiquan so as to advance to the next levels. If the teacher can feel the students energy being transmitted into his own body, then it means the student has mastered ‘Taiji Neijing’ use and way of expressing the inner energy, then the students Taiji level will elevate to higher levels with each day of practice. But the mastery of ‘Neijing’ is a complex matter and the student must rely on an experienced teacher to correct any faults and to guide the student to the correct execution and understanding of ‘Neijing’.
Stage five is ‘Quixujing’, the training to distinguish solid and emptiness and quietness, the understanding of solid and empty in each movement and the changes involved, and to bring about a quietness and relaxing of the self whilst moving and practicing the form.
From the above mentioned five stages of practice all need to rely on correct body movement and expression of power, but with stage five, one needs to use the mind to master the understanding of solid and empty and quietness of ones movements. One must use the mind to direct the form as expressed (in the above four stages). That is the foot as a spring, twisting of the waste, to urge forward the shoulders, to sending out the elbows and arms to express the energy once it has reached the wrists and hands. At the very last stage then, one will be using the mind to express the explosive energy and to direct the form.
Whilst performing the Taiji movements, one should have a feeling of resistance around the skin of the whole body akin to one feeling the resistance of water when one is swimming or moving through water. When one can feel this resistance of air over the body whilst in motion, it is then that one has improved to a level that, for example, can be used when in application or push hands so that one will ‘know’ where the opponents energy / force is at the moment of contact.
II: Important Points For Mastering The Practice Of Taijiquan
When practicing Taijiquan, one must use the mind to direct the flow of ‘Qi’. Once the mind has directed the flow of ‘Qi’, then it is the ‘Qi’ that will direct the movement of the body. If one follows this way of practice, then this in turn will invigorate the body’s ‘Jing’ (inner essence – in this case different from the ‘explosive energy-Jing’), which in turn will create more ‘Qi’ in the body which in turn will also stimulate ones ‘Shen’(spirit). Again in turn, as if feeding and growing off each other, will again in turn act to create greater ‘Jing’ and thus more ‘Qi’ and stimulate higher levels of ‘Shen’, and like a constant rotation from ‘Jing’ to ‘Qi’ to ‘Shen’ and back to ‘Jing’ again, will help to improve ones well-being and a healthier state of mind. Therefore it is very important to diligently practice and carefully notice in each posture the flow of ‘Qi’ and direction of movement.
Whilst practicing Taijiquan, one must have softness as well as firmness in the form but can not be too soft or too hard. Regardless of which posture one is performing, one must adhere to this principle of softness and firmness. If too soft, one will not have enough energy and the ‘Shen’ (spirit) will not be aroused. If too firm, then ones ‘Qi’ will not be able to circulate throughout the body and will become too brittle and will therefore be easily broken.
One should not use ones muscle strength or brute force as if too tense in practice because the flow of ‘Qi’ will be obstructed and the body will feel clumsy. If brute strength is used, then not only will the flow of ‘Qi’ be obstructed but also one will not be able to ‘feel’ the opponent’s energy and thus will not be able to neutralise it.
When practising Taijiquan one should not practice with fury or rage. If so, one will be too brittle/firm and will be easily ‘broken’. Moreover, if one does practices with rage then the ‘Qi’ will be retained in the chest and will feel uncomfortable and this can have detrimental effects on the body and health. Therefore one must be patient with practice and should be relaxed, and after adhering to the principles of Taijiquan, after a period of diligent training, will reap the rewards.
When practicing Taijiquan, ones shoulders and chest should not be too open, the body should not be too crouched over and the stomach should not be ‘sucked’ in so as the chest is protruding outwards. If one practices in such a way then it is possible that the ‘Qi’ will flow in a reverse way that it should and may not be able to return to the ‘Dantian’ and in turn the ‘Qi’ will rise upward and there will be a feeling of imbalance.
With the practise of Taijiquan one should understand a little about Chinese medicine theory. Therefore when performing Taiji one can understand, for example, where the ’Dantian’ is and where one is directing the ‘Qi’ to and how to bring the ‘Qi’ back to the ‘Dantian’. It is important to note that the ‘Qi’ should always be allowed to return to the ‘Dantian’. Therefore in this way, there is a constant flow from the ‘Dantian’ to all parts of the body and then back to the ‘Dantian’.
Whilst practicing the form, one should not always be thinking of how the movements are used to strike an opponent, one should instead be using the ‘Yi’ (mind) and ‘Qi’ to direct the movement. If one is constantly thinking of how to strike a rival then ones Taijiquan will not advance to the higher levels of understanding. Therefore one must be patient with practice and with diligent training and the building up of ‘Jing’, ‘Qi’ and ‘Shen’ this understanding will come and one will be able to express the explosive energy when the time comes.
Once one understands the above points, and with and diligent practice will it be possible to improve ones inner strength and increase longevity by the cultivation of ‘Jing’, ‘Qi’ and ‘Shen’. Then will come the understanding of the use and applications of Taijiquan.