By Yang Fukui, as told to Bob Feldman
The Taiji ball or “qiu” is an integral part of intermediate and advanced training in Yang Taijiquan. While there was some interest in the ball among Taiji practitioners in the 1920′x and 1930′s, interest subsequently diminished and few people, even in China today, are familiar with its extensive practice methods.
In English there have only been several short written accounts by Lee Ying Arng and Yang Jwing-Ming, in particular, that described certain aspects of this training. Ball practice, however, is still taught to Yang family members and some close “indoor” students. The purpose of this article is to shed some light upon the purposes and methods of the taiji ball to the many students of Yang style Taijiquan that practice around the world.
The goals of ball practice are to develop one’s root and refine one’s qi and internal strength. It is usually not taught in the family until the student has practiced for a minimum of four to five years and is somewhat familiar with the forms of Yang Taijiquan and the basic principles of push hands.
If one has not attained a certain level of practice, it is counter-productive to learn the ball, as the student will rely more upon muscular effort than upon utilizing the unified strength of the whole body.
Yang style ball practice probably has its origins in the Chen style, although the ball was also utilized in Wudang and Omei training for many hundreds of years. Yang style Taijiquan, while it evolved from the Chen style, in practice focuses more upon internalization of force and rarely emits it externally, except in fighting.
To my understanding, among the major styles of Taijiquan, only the Yang and Chen styles have developed extensive practice methods utilizing the ball.
The Yang style Taiji form is designed to develop physical conditioning, like most internal systems, by increasing the circulation of blood and qi as an integral method of self-healing, spiritual cultivation and fighting. The ball practice greatly helps to achieve this.
The ball is practiced in relatively lower stances than the open hand form, in which the practitioner must be comfortable and relaxed, and which must not rely on muscle tension. In practicing in low postures, one develops strong ligaments and connective tissue to support the weight of the body, thereby improving one’s “root.”
Like the open hand set, one essentially develops “passive” internal strength, but one finds that when using it “actively” for fali, or explosive force, it greatly improves one’s power in push hands and fighting.
As beginners do not usually possess the ability to eliminate tension in low postures, their energy and their blood circulation become blocked in lower stances and their root remains weak. The more relaxed one is within the stance, the deeper one’s root.
One then can move easily to handling the heaviness of the ball because one’s strength emanates from qi, not from muscular tension, with practice.
Over the years, one can start to utilize heavier and heavier balls, progressing, for example, from 8 pounds to 18 pounds. My grandfather used to say that if one changes the weight of the ball four times in one’s life and can handle the ball easily, one is sure to develop good gongfu. This is obviously not a short-term process.
One must also learn, as in the practice of weapons, to allow one’s body and intention to “follow” the ball, not “lead” it. If one attempts to “lead” the ball, one has the tendency to use muscular force, so that the body “fights itself.” If one “follows” the ball, the qi and blood circulation in the absence of muscular tension can open and become more free-flowing.
There is an old saying that if one’s qi and blood circulate well, one’s life can be long. In more advanced drills, the Taiji ball also contains a lot of coiling movements, which are used to improve Taiji ball push hands and fighting skills.
The Taiji ball exercises were developed for these purposes by the first and second generation of our family; Yang Banhou, for example, was particularly adept with the ball. As one’s root and coiling ability improve, one can emit explosive fali, or spring power, even in low stances. At higher levels of practice, one does not focus on qi, but rather upon the cultivation of spirit, or shen.
Little physical strength is utilized at this level and the movements appear to be executed almost effortlessly. At the intermediate and beginner levels, however, it is more important to learn how to develop spring power rather than brute strength. This is done by developing one’s qi and blood circulation. Therefore, the goals of ball practice are to lower the root, increase coiling ability and to develop spring power. This will in turn improve one’s gongfu.
“Gong” may be translated as ability and it must start with basic exercise training. In ball practice, one first begins with a heavy cube-shaped weight placed on a table, making the body to move it is multiple directions and in circles. The weighted cube is utilized first because it moves in a flat plane only.
The ball comes later, as it allows movement in multiple planes at the same time, including up and down in the vertical plane and in multiple planes simultaneously. Balls can be made of iron, wood or leather filled with sand, and must be perfectly round. The diameter of the ball depends upon the size of the practitioner and the type of practice in which he is engaged. The standard ball, however, has approximately a two foot diameter.
In the United States, a medicine ball is a reasonable substitute. On the table, the wooden or iron ball is more commonly used and there are four basic table exercises with many variations. In these exercises, the ball is moved in multiple planes, and one can use a round or square platform on the table to further refine exact spirals or distances using both one-handed and two-handed methods. Here predominantly spiralic or coiling exercises are practiced.
The next level of training focuses upon the practice of the hanging ball, which may also be made of wood or iron, but is usually made of leather and filled with sand. It is suspended from above by a singular line. Again, spiralic movements are practiced, as well as fali and spinning movements. The hardness within the softness of the ball allows one to better emit fali, or explosive force, and to receive force while neutralizing or changing the direction of the ball’s path.
Multiple balls may be hung together to allow one to practice these methods in multiple direction, simulating attacks by multiple opponents or multiple forces directed as you by one opponent simultaneously. At home, however, we never utilized more than two hanging balls at once. There are 18 exercises in this practice.
Later, one goes on to two or even three person practice with hanging balls in which one person throws or thrusts the ball at another practicing fali, who must receive the force and change its direction or spiralic revolution (practicing fa-jin). Fa-jin here entails a change of direction or transmutation of force from one qualitative state to another. For example, a straight force can be changed into a circular force.
In some exercises, one sends the ball back to the first person or to a third person who is in another direction, further refining and quickening one’s reaction. There are 28 exercises in this particular aspect of ball practice, although one can improvise numerous variations.
The student will also learn a variety of basic exercises in which the ball is held in one or two hands. These postures are practiced in lower stances than one will actually practice the standard Yang style open-hand set, in order to deepen one’s root, develop one’s coiling power and fali, to improve martial skills.
Many of the exercises are similar to actual postures in the open-hand form, such as “Lan Chao Wei” or “Grasp the Sparrow’s Tail” and “Ye Ma Fun Zhong” or “Parting the Horse’s Mane.” Other postures are quite different from the open-hand form.
It is essential that, like the open-hand form, the movements be executed without muscular tension, have smooth transitions, show internal strength, clear intention, coiling ability, and utilize the whole body in unison, not just the arms. Although each of the individual exercises should be repetitively practiced on both the left and right sides, they can also be linked into a set.
The number of different exercises practiced while holding the ball is 28. Therefore, the set contains 28 exercises. In addition, when performing he combination set, there are slight variations in some of the movements, to allow them to better flow into the next exercise.
While the practice of Taiji ball can be grueling, depending on the weight of the ball, this set allows one to build endurance, allowing one to practice a variety of movements. Examples of these exercises are shown in the photos.
The final component of Yang style Taiji ball practice applies push hands methods. The stances are also particularly low to cultivate ones root, and the methods may be divided into two types: two persons pushing the ball itself and two persons utilizing pushing of the ball to push the opponent. Peng, Lu, Ji, An, as well as other aspects of push hands practice, include “banshi,” or “adhering jin,” in which the ball is cupped and held with one hand. There are also 28 exercises in this aspect of ball training.
The Taiji ball is a very good ancillary practice for Taijiquan about which little today is known or understood. It is the author’s wish that this article will help spread awareness among Yang style practitioners of this useful method, as well as its goals and precautions.
Yang Style Tai Chi Ball T’AI CHI – Vol. 25, No. 3
Tai Chi Ball Qigong: For Health and Martial Arts by Yang Jwing-Ming and David Grantham