How to train your spirit and energy to drive the body

Ren Gang

Many people have already tried to explain what Taiji is, and what makes this art so special or different from other Chinese martial arts.

Some translate it as “The Supreme Ultimate Fist” – giving students an idea that it is a great fighting art, based on strength, speed or martial skills.

But to Ren Gang, who is a long time student of Master Dong Bin of Shanghai China; its origins and explanation must be traced back to the concept of “Wu Ji” or “a state of emptiness”, that is before Yin and Yang separate.Ren Gang began studying martial arts when he was a young boy of about 12 years old.

He was born in the mid sixties, and grew up in a turbulent time in China’s history.

During the Cultural Revolution he and his family lived with a very famous Shaolin master, Wang Zi Ping and his daughter Wang Zhu Rong, for about seven years.

Ren Gang, as a child was sickly and his family deemed themselves lucky if they went two weeks without having to take him to the doctors! So they encouraged him to begin studying under the tutelage of Miss Wang, who was then about 50 years old.

After his family moved home a few years later, he still carried on studying form from her.

At age 20, he felt that he hadn’t really become proficient in shaolin, but rather just enjoyed playing martial arts for fun.

Some time later, whilst in Fu Xing Park he saw a gentleman teaching Taiji Quan. This was Master Dong Bin.

Dong Bin had learnt from Dong Shi Zuo and Ye Huan Zi, who in turn were both students of Master Dong Ying Jie.Ren Gang was instantly attracted to his movements and style and began to go to the park regularly just to observe Master Dong.

He did this for over six months, but didn’t have the courage to openly ask Dong Bin to teach him.

However, once, Master Dong having become familiar with Ren Gang always being there, showed him a few basic training exercises (Ji Ben Gong).

Unfortunately, at this same time Ren was beginning his university studies, and didn’t go back to the park for over six months, so regrettably lost contact with Master Dong.

Ren Gang finished his university studies and after graduation, whilst working as an apprentice, bumped into Master Dong on the street. Ren, who was so excited to finally meet up with Dong again, immediately asked if Dong would teach him, but Master Dong said he was too old to teach now and wasn’t taking on any students. Ren was too embarrassed to ask again, but enquired if he could meet Dong sometimes, just to chat or spend time together. He felt merely being with Master Dong made him happy and he really enjoyed his company. (I felt the same way when I first met Master Dong myself, just being with him made me feel at peace).

Dong agreed, and after a long time of meeting like this he finally started to teach Ren Taiji.

Master Dong would often share his experiences of studying Taiji and encouraged Ren to study hard. Master Dong’s shixiong/di gongfu brothers also welcomed him and tried to motivate him to train diligently. They all felt he had great potential to reach a high level in Taiji.

Ren explained that in meeting and training with Master Dong, he felt that he had found a teacher that “knew” and understood the real meaning of Taiji.

Firstly, he felt that Master Dong was a very nice, generous and kind person. He treated Ren Gang with respect and like a friend, despite their forty year age difference.

His Tui Shou (push hands) was also very special. In China, as in every other country where Taiji is practiced, the principle of 4 ounces defeats 1000 pounds (“si liang bo qian jing”) is little in evidence, as can be witnessed by the wrestling and grappling that often takes place in parks and competitions, etc.

But Master Dong understood this principle and more importantly could utilize it, and one felt that he used no physical effort in deflecting an attacker, only qi (energy) or “kong jing” (empty power).

Master Dong also knew many “shou fa” (martial applications) and just seemed like an encyclopedia of Taiji and Wushu.Ren Gang said that sadly, with work pressures and commitments, he knows that he hasn’t been able to put in as much time as his teachers and gongfu uncles wished, and so his practice has not reached as high a level as they had hoped, but believes that he has a good idea of what Taiji is and how it works. I would add that I feel for somebody of his age he has already attained great ability and embodies many of the genuine principles of internal arts.

He believes very strongly that practitioners should follow the classic texts and principles carefully and try to find the meanings within their own bodies and feelings. People certainly shouldn’t suspect or try to change the meanings within the texts as he has heard some teachers do.

He said if you want to know if your practice is on track, you should check yourself. If you’ve spent a short amount of time practicing and have made lots of progress then you know you’re right. But, if after practicing several years, you cannot push with or do well against an opponent who has practiced the same amount of time in other arts, then something must be wrong.

You need to know where you’re wrong and be able to address the problem.

He said many people say that Taiji takes years to learn and so they say don’t expect quick results. However he feels this is misleading. The honing and refining of Taiji skills has indeed no end, it is a lifelong study and not something that one can perfect in a few years, but one should be able to see definite progress inside three to five years.

So what is Taiji?
Before we move we are in the state of Wu Ji. But after we move or the opponent moves, the peace and calm are broken and emptiness gives rise to yin and yang, (separateness in harmony). (In Chinese: “Wu ji er sheng dong fen yin yang”).

Taiji’s foundation is from the principle of wu jie, not from the movements of “beng, liu, ji ,an.” (Expansion or ward off, dissipate or roll back, press and push).

When the opponent moves, he destroys the state of wu ji or emptiness and yin and yang develops.

In this change, his “neng liang” (energy) and his “shi” (potential force and energy) are yang. For example, if he uses his right fist to strike you, then his right side is yang but his left side becomes yin.

What the practitioner should do is, at the point where the opponent is striking towards, one must “hua” or dissipate his potential force, where he is yang, you must be yin. But this apparent yielding or dissipating is not becoming “diu” or lost and lacking in substance, or “ruan” soft like tofu; it is accepting and welcoming his force like letting the wind blew through and out. Then your strike (yang) can fill the opponent’s yin or weak place, now that his strength and force have been diffused. The adversary’s energy is now completely spent, because you have emptied out his strong yang part by dissipating it. He becomes weak and unstable and empty. This concept of emptying out his force is called “yin jing luo kong” in Chinese.

At this time, when he is completely empty and weak, you can issue power, “fa jing”.

One can only successfully issue power when the opponent is truly empty; otherwise if he is still strong and stable it becomes force against force.

When you issue, you must be able to release all your neng liang (energy) to the opponent. Your body must be “tong tou” empty and almost transparent inside, with no tense places.

To be “tong tou” we must first be “song” (relaxed) says Ren. But people often have a mistaken view of what “song” or relaxed means.

They know that being hard or tense is wrong but they then go to the other extreme and become “ruan” soft and collapsed in structure. This he says is an even bigger mistake. Like this, one can still not be truly relaxed and one loses one’s own “neng li” the body’s integrated and unified structural strength.

If one is just soft, one cannot use Taiji as a martial art, it just suffices as exercise. This is why many other disciplines scorn Taiji as a fighting system, because of this misunderstanding of “song” relaxed.

Ren Gang says the body must be turned into a flowing, free-moving entity where one can move in an even, nimble and alive state. Some people like to imagine their bodies move like water, as this conjures up this feeling, but he says to move like air is an even better analogy.

When one is genuinely relaxed, one can not only move smoothly, quickly and naturally to deal with the opponent, but one can face life’s challenges easily too.

Of course, Ren says when one first learns the Taiji form, one needs to have the correct body posture and movement, particularly in relation to the waist and kua (hips).

Sometimes, new practitioners will feel that their body or hips etc are not in the right position, and thus they will feel that their own bones are holding them back; at this juncture it’s very hard to use one’s shen qi (energy).

Once your body postures are correct you can start to move freely and you will start to discover your shen qi.

In Chinese, Ren says, the waist eventually becomes an energetic centre of the body, not a physical muscular or skeletal centre.

At the outset, when one begins learning, students will treat the waist as a physical entity which they will turn and move using bone and muscle, but this is a preliminary stage. The heart “Xin” first decides what to do and tells the waist, (this second energetic centre or second heart and mind) and the waist then controls the energetic field or shen qi and the shen qi moves the rest of the body.

He said that this concept of the waist is not easy for beginners to grasp, but over years of practice one can obtain this feeling of it being a non-physical centre. Without this sensation, he says he would not be able to smoothly and effortlessly remove an attacker’s grab to his throat or body.

If he said, he treated his waist as a hard or physical place, then an attack on his throat in particular, would cause him to tense up and try to resist, thus allowing the attacker to gain an even stronger hold.

When the waist moves, the legs and feet should follow the waist; this is what the principle of the waist being the commander means.

So what is “shen qi”?
When somebody practices Taiji form, they will slowly get a feeling that as they move, the air and energy around them is moving with them. (Taiji is often described as swimming in air.) Later one will feel that one is moving within an energy field, that one is connected to the surrounding environment, and that they can control and move this energy all around them.

This energy is shen qi.

To explain more about the different types of energy connected to the body, Chinese says

“Gu rou de neng liang shi li liang, jing shen de neng liang shi shen qi”.

Basically translated, it just means that physical strength (li liang) is the expression or manifestation of energy (neng liang) from the physical body (gu rou), and an invisible but yet tangible feeling of energy surrounding a person (shen qi) is the manifestation of the (jing shen) spirit’s energy.

When you meet somebody who is usually quite strong and energetic, but who at that time is ill, you will feel that they have no vital force, no shen qi, so you don’t feel intimidated or afraid of them, and are able to overcome them.

He says this kind of invisible energy force and spirit is what drives the body’s movements, not your physical structure that carries out the movements.

In Taiji we should constantly try to practice, develop and enhance this shen qi. In doing so, one will also change not just one’s physical movements but one’s character as well. The more relaxed one becomes, the greater their shen qi will be and the more generous, calm and open one will become.

He said this sense of calmness is a fundamental part of tui shou (push hands), fighting, or life in general.

In push hands or san shou (sparring) one must be calm and still inside. You must allow the opponent to fully take up his position or stance. Let him show you what he intends to do, this way you can clearly see where his faults and weaknesses are, thereby allowing you to take advantage of them and overcome him.

If you act as most people do and immediately try to go against him or react out of anxiety or impatience the moment he opposes you, then you and he become locked in a battle, the outcome of which rests on the big overcoming the small, the strong overcoming the weak, or the fast defeating the slow. None of which are part of Taiji’s internal principles.

Going against him also allows the opponent to espy your weaknesses and utilize them to defeat you.

Here is where the practitioner must again invoke the state of Wu Jie.

In English we use one word to mean “emptiness”, but in Chinese the idea of empty or nothing has many different meanings:

“KONG” – empty or free

“DIU” – empty, lost or without any firm structure or spirit

“MEI YOU” – without, nothing

So the problem for foreign students learning Wushu or the Chinese language itself is how to understand what real emptiness is, as in the state of “Wu Ji”.

We must realize that emptiness is not just nothing, but that it is emptiness and fullness combined. It is nothing and everything in complete harmony.

Before one moves, thinks, talks etc, one is first empty – wu ji. An integrated whole which is in complete harmony with its surroundings.

So, wu ji is in fact a quiet balanced state, where one thing exists peacefully and in harmony with another.

Ren Gang says that in push hands or sparring etc, one must first look upon the opponent not as a separate entity that you must defeat – The Enemy – but as a part of you, a part of your energy circle.

Chinese philosophy looks upon a person as being as one with the earth and sky; they are in harmony not separate. If you can fully realize this and have a sensation of this state, than you can cultivate the feeling that the opponent is also one with you.

But, it’s not just his physical body that is one with you, his spirit and “shen qi” vital energy around him, is part of your energy sphere too.

So in Taiji, we want to first become aware of and later be able to harness this shen qi.

Often people play the form and have a feeling of energy moving the body’s structure, but as soon as they push hands with someone, they go back to using physical strength or their structure, and are more concerned about winning and thus lose control of their shen qi.

In “Nei Jia Quan” internal arts, like Taiji, we want to forget about the body’s structure and strength and utilize the shen qi to move our own body and deal with the opponent.

In Chinese they say the “Xin” heart or unconscious thought controls your waist, the waist controls and moves the shen qi and your shen qi moves the physical body.

If you want to do something, you feel what it is you want to do, and then your body responds.

Ren says that you must train yourself to use your heart (Xin) and waist to control your shen qi and thus change your old habits of the physical body or your rational thought moving the energy.

He said that when one moves, whatever one wants to do or decides to do, the body will just follow precisely what you intend. In push hands, when you see the opportunity to dissipate or strike the opponent, your body immediately obeys this “thought” or feeling with action.

He said if you have to wrestle and struggle to try and overcome the opponent to move him, then this is wrong.

At first, Ren mentioned, your body won’t listen to your intention or your waist, but over time, as you concentrate on this aspect, you will start to cultivate a sensation.

Ren says that he personally doesn’t think that a person’s form postures are so important, for example if your hand is higher, lower etc; but a student’s basic postures and structural position must be correct.

It’s like eating, he said, it doesn’t matter if you use chopsticks or a knife and fork or how you hold them that matters, but that you get the food in your mouth and not your nose that’s important!

Finally I asked him about his hopes for the future of Taiji.

Ren replied that he hopes that all practitioners of Taiji can learn the genuine art, and not have a false impression that Taiji is either an art based on physical strength or some mystical, magical art that is so complex that a student can never master or comprehend it.

He said if he ever reaches a stage where he understands the secrets of Taiji and can use them, then he would certainly want to share this knowledge with everyone, so that all lovers of Taiji can share in the splendour of this wonderful art.Finally, he reiterated, that you must be open and generous in spirit. Your shen qi (an energy field that surrounds you and is interconnected with your spirit) and your “qi liang” (generosity of spirit) is connected, so if you’re a mean person your shen qi will also be small, and you’ll be able to utilize very little of this force. Personally, I think that he is already well on the way to reaching this state, and apart from Master Dong Bin, I can safely say that I have learnt more about Taiji and internal arts in the short time that I have known him, than I have in over twelve years of study from many teachers around the world.

His belief in Buddhism has certainly been instrumental in understanding many of Taiji’s principles, and his generosity in sharing with all who meet him, is a testament to the fact that having an open mind and generous spirit, really does raise and benefit one’s Taiji practiceHopefully those attending the event in Shanghai China in November this year, will have a chance to find out for themselves!

by courtesy of


  1. I want to learn tai chi…but my head is not empty…always fall down, always so many question and doubts…and now my body always my inner head also starts feel inner pain

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