Tai Chi Principles

Professor Ji Jian-Cheng – Zhejiang University, China

If you want to master Tai Chi Chuan, you first need to understand ‘Wuji’ (emptiness, formlessness). And, to really comprehend the inner meaning of Tai Chi, you also have to be aware of its philosophy and principles, and practice according to them. Then, after a long period of disciplined training you will finally understand the essence of Tai Chi Chuan.

When learning Tai Chi Chuan, the first thing to do is to practice ‘Tai Chi Gong’. This focuses on the fundamentals of Tai Chi ‘Neigong’ (internal training). It is said that, “to practice Tai Chi we must first start from understanding ‘Wuji’ and with diligent practice will come the realisation of ‘Yin’ and ‘Yang’”. So, before starting to practice the form, you should first do ‘Tai Chi Gongfa’ (Tai Chi basic principles). For example, practice ‘Tai Chi Zhuanggong’ (standing exercise), and you will gradually experience a feeling of silence and peace in your mind and you will feel as if your body is empty. When you hold your hands out you will feel as though you are holding a balloon; you will forget your legs, they will feel like they are not there. When practicing ‘Tai Chi Gong’ you should feel like you are not breathing, but are still in control of your breath. Allow your breath to be natural, long and deep, use your mind to direct the ‘Qi’ to various parts of your body.When you experience ‘Wuxing’ (formlessness/intangibility), you will slowly feel the energy circulating throughout your body. With long and continual practice you will find that your strength will be greater than before and your ‘Qi’ (‘inner breath and essence’) will increase with every day of practice. These points should help you to get a solid foundation in the practice of Tai Chi Chuan.

The Five Stages Of Tai Chi Practice:
The first stage is to learn the Tai Chi form and to master its postures and movements. It does not matter whether the posture is static or moving, you must always keep the following points in mind: Feel as if the crown of the head is being lifted from above; the chin should incline slightly toward the chest; the shoulders should be relaxed and the arms should fall naturally to your sides; the spine should be kept straight with the chest very slightly curving inwards; the hips must be relaxed and the buttocks turned under a little; the hips and shoulders should be in line and the spine vertical to the ground which should produce a natural comfortable feeling. When moving, 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. Moving forward or backward, you must keep your centre of gravity low and also at a constant height so that the body does not move up and down, etc. At this stage and with gradual training, you should let your arms become ‘lighter’, your legs placed firmly but lightly.

With the second stage of practice, it is important to place your strength in the roots of the feet. Whether moving forward or back, left or right, or turning, one must place the weight on the feet and then ‘deng jiao’ i.e. first press downwards then lift the foot up, as if compressing a 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 pivoting and the hips will lead the body in its movement. After a long period of practice, the whole body will gradually become relaxed, alive and nimble and the body’s energy will come from the feet and the counter-action of the pivoting movement. Once this second phase has been achieved, one can then place one’s force at the base of the feet. The principles of Tai Chi Chuan say, “the force (jing) comes from the base of the feet to direct the waist”. Note that the waist includes the lower spinal area and can also include the hips.

At the third stage of practice, ‘Fajing’ (expressing energy) is the main objective. According to the expression ‘Rou xing qi, gang luo dian’ when expressing the energy it is very soft until the last moment and then it becomes as hard as iron. When attempting to express one’s energy in each movement of the form, the two feet must ‘deng jiao’ – press into the ground for the energy to come through, as mentioned earlier, like pressing 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 waist 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. When you express energy (fajing) all parts of the body must act together and feel like an iron spring being compressed, then at the very last moment your 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.

At the fourth stage, after practicing ‘fajing’ (explosive energy) for a while, it is best to have an experienced teacher test whether your ‘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 Tai Chi Chuan 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. When performing the Taiji movements, one should have a feeling of resistance around the skin of the whole body like feeling the resistance of water when swimming or moving through water. When you can feel this resistance of air over the body while in motion, then you have improved to a level that, for example, can be used in application or in ‘pushing hands’ so that you will ‘know’ where the opponent’s energy/force is at the moment of contact.

II: Important Points For Mastering Tai Chi Chuan
When practicing Tai Chi Chuan, 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 will invigorate the body’s ‘Jing’ (inner essence – not the same word as ‘explosive energy-Jing’), which will then create more ‘Qi’ in the body which will also stimulate one’s ‘Shen’(spirit). Again, as if feeding and growing off each other, this will increase the ‘Jing’ and therefore more ‘Qi’ and higher levels of ‘Shen’; and like a constant cycle 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. When you practice Tai Chi Chuan, you must have softness as well as firmness in the form but you cannot 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 one’s musclular 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 Tai Chi Chuan 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 Tai Chi Chuan, after a period of diligent training, will reap the rewards. When practicing Tai Chi Chuan, 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 Tai Chi Chuan 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’.

When you practice the form, you should not always be thinking of how the movements are used to deal with an opponent (information on applications is given in Professor Ji’ article ‘Tai Chi Applications’ ). Instead, you should be using the ‘Yi’ (mind) and ‘Qi’ to direct the movement. If you are always thinking of how to strike an attacker then your Tai Chi Chuan will not advance to the higher levels of understanding. Therefore, you must be patient with practice and with diligent training and the building up of ‘Jing’, ‘Qi’ and ‘Shen’ eventually you will be able to express explosive energy. When you understand the above points, and with diligent practice, you will be able to improve your inner strength and increase longevity by the cultivation of ‘Jing’, ‘Qi’ and ‘Shen’. Then you will really understand Tai Chi Chuan.

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One response to “Tai Chi Principles”

  1. Curt Avatar

    This is an excellent discussion of the principles underlying TJQ training. I especially like the description of the foot spring and the different ways to vector the energies. I would really appreciate further discussion of this topic as well as the various expressions of the five bows.

    Thank you

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