by Wee Kee-Jin
Master Huang was a renowned practitioner, but it was as a teacher that he most stood out. He developed exercises and a systemised training method that recognised the stages of a student’s development.
When learning Taijiquan we all start with poor posture and awkward actions. So we need to work with big loose movements to free up locked joints and accumulated tensions, with particular attention on uprightness and an awareness of the feet to cultivate greater stability. Initially the body moves as one block, but as the joints and muscles loosen we start to turn from the hips, to lead the waist, to lead the body, to lead the arms. The raising of the arms, instead of lifting, gets motivated from a force below and expressed by the relaxation of the body’s trunk, shoulders and elbows. Then every movement in the upper body becomes a product of the changes from below.
From the beginning the importance of the structure must be emphasised. This is the accuracy and alignment both in posture and later during the transitions, and provides the pathways for the energies to pass through. Like the hose, where either kinking or squeezing can stop the water flowing, in the body locked joints and muscular tension will restrict the energy’s path.
Focusing on the Qi or Yi before the structure is established is of little use, like generating electricity without having the wires to transmit it. Meditation and Qigong also works on the Yi and Qi but without the Pushing hands they do not provide the method to deliver a relaxed force.
Accuracy is not just the details of the positions (the where), or the sequence (the when), but more importantly the process of how you move. Inaccuracies may be made obvious to you in Pushing-hands, but it is in the Form that you train them. If you can’t maintain your alignment when there is no external force affecting you, then it must be impossible if there is.
Alignment refers to a state of central equilibrium, that is being upright and centred both horizontally and vertically. When moving, both left and right need to change evenly, so both knees, hips and shoulders should drop at the same rate, not one side faster than the other.
If students only work on being loose, relaxed and sensitive then their Form will not be grounded (floating Form) and during Pushing-hands they not have a relaxed-force to issue. Even their sticking will only be at a surface level. Therefore you need to include sinking in the Form.
Song is an external and internal process – physically relaxing, and mentally sinking. The relaxation is a physical mechanism involving the releasing of the joints from the feet up. To connect with the ground you must relax the feet and ankles, give at the knees by dropping the hips into their sockets. This will create the space for the body to fall into. The shoulders can then drop closely followed by the lowering of the elbows and wrists. The base, upper body and arm relaxation should happen almost simultaneously to avoid holding-up the sinking.
All internal mechanisms in Taiji must be cultivated using the Mind (Yi), which consists of two parts – intention and awareness.
When you intend to move you first think of it, then the body acts, in a way that you need to be aware of, otherwise you will not understand the process or the changes. So in every movement you must have the intention first, closely followed by your awareness.
Thinking is only planning. It is the awareness that you use to cultivate the relaxation, the sinking and the rebounding forces – visualise them, and move your awareness to experience them. Initially they may not physically occur in a way that is obvious, but after prolonged practice they will happen as you have visualised.
The Yi directs the Qi, so wherever the awareness is, the energy will be there. Focusing on the Qi itself can actually block, or stagnate it. The flow of the Qi is a product of your directed awareness
Sinking is the continuous flow of sensation from the crown down. To first train we release (as described above) then visualise a cup of warm water being poured at the crown of the head, draining down the body and the legs with a melting feeling, through the feet and into the ground.
In the first stage of training with sinking in the Form, the student learns to sink into posture by getting into position then allowing the sensation to complete, before issuing and moving into the next posture.
After a year or so of sinking into every posture, sinking during transition is introduced. Here the process starts at the moment the insubstantial foot begins to move, whereby the student sinks into the substantial foot and continues uninterrupted by the adjustment of the foot, the turning of the hips, the transfer of weight, and even during the releasing of the force (issuing).
The result of relaxing and sinking is a noticeable increase of pressure in the feet. This is termed grounding, or taking root. It is important to remember that the calmness produces the relaxation, the relaxation produces the sinking, the sinking produces the grounding, the grounding produces the rebounding force. Therefore Jing is a product of Song, and continuous sinking will supply a continuous force.
Tui Shou, is just an extension of the Form. The only difference is an external force motivates your movements. You should move in the same way, with the same awareness as you do in the Form and whatever you are working on in the Form you need to include your Pushing-hands.
Yielding is not to retreat from the force. Nor is to take root to stand against it. To move a moment ahead of a force, is pulling away or disconnecting. To move a moment after, is to resist. It is the fly alighting that sets you in motion, not because the fly lands that you move away. It is the incoming force that creates the movement in you. When you push into a sponge, it isn’t trying to move away from you, it just absorbs your force. When you force is exhausted, the sponge follows you back. This is sticking.
In Taiji Sticking is following someone else’s centre, being connected from your own root through and into another persons, so that two can move as one. It requires listening, sinking, opening, closing and harmonious movements. The process of emptying an incoming force into the ground, and sticking to the base of your partner, requires the same mechanisms as used to sink in the Form.
Therefore if someone has not trained the sinking, they could be able to yield and extend a force to weaken it, but an amount of it will still be on them. What’s more they will only be able to stick to the surface of the opponent and not contact into their root.
Neutralising is redirecting an incoming force and later the ability to empty it completely from the body into then ground. With good alignment the first direction learnt for neutralising is horizontal, pivoting about the spinal axis. When opening, closing and sinking can be incorporated, the neutralising also becomes vertical and internal, enabling the incoming forces to be intercepted, and rebound back into your partner.
Closing and opening refers to the space between your hands, arms and body. Letting go from the centre is closing; opening is expanding from the centre. The movement of the outside is a product of the changes inside. Closing needs space to take place, which is what the sinking provides.
Speed and timing must be in relation to one another. If your turn a watch, although the winder turns a gear, and that turns another wheel and so on until the hands move, they all seem to turn together. No wheel turns any faster than the one driving it, they all move at exactly the same speed and at the same time.
Although you turn from your hips, the linking together results in your body parts arriving at different destinations simultaneously.
In Pushing-hands, even with good listening skills and sensitivity, inaccuracies or poor synchronisation will either leave a gap for someone else to come in, or you’ll get stuck by locking yourself up.
Synchronising the changes throughout the Form is an important step in developing your Taiji. This is the natural timing that results when relaxation motivates your movement, sinking and issuing originates from the root below and closing and opening is from the centre within.
When letting the air out of a balloon, all sides contract together and at the same rate. This emptying is even and is called balance which should be within every closing and opening, that is – throughout the whole Form and Pushing-hands. If you are in balance then like a set of scales, the slightest pressure sets you in motion, providing the structure is in place.
Before issuing there is always a point of breaking the root of your partner, which can begin the moment you stick. When developing the ability to issue, the student needs to wait for the sinking to be complete before allowing the force to – bounce back from the root, magnifying it in the legs, directing it with the hips, and passing it through the body and arms to the fingertips (or any other point of contact).
Initially the release of force is triggered by a small push of the substantial foot into the ground. But later this becomes unnecessary as 1% relaxation becomes 1% of sinking, which is 1% of grounding which equals 1% of force. Just as in a spring, where as soon you push against it, a force returns towards you. Remembering that the efficiency of a spring is dependant upon its structure – if too rigid there won’t be any compression, too soft and it will collapse, poor alignment and it will buckle.
The quality of a push is much more important than the quantity of how far that you throw someone. With a good clean push, both of their feet will leave the ground, rather than them just staggering backwards. The power comes from the energies not physical strength so the experience of being issued upon should be light and comfortable not brutal or forceful. If everything is in place from structure through to timing you may be made to fly, but even that is not the point.
Taiji is a process not a result. Exercises, Forms and Pushing-hands are methods for exploring the Principles within all movements. To improve we only need to refine our movements and deepen our understanding of the Principles. However this is an ongoing, continuous process. Ultimately the Form becomes formless, and every action or non-action is in harmony – that is Taijiquan.