By Yang Fukui, as told by Bob Feldman
Note: This interview was done over the course of several sessions. I took the liberty of organizing the interview into a cohesive discussion of an “insider’s view” of Yang style Taijiquan. The essence of what Yang Fukui says in this interview is consistent with how he personally practices the traditional methods of Yang style Taijiquan – Bob Feldman
Bob Feldman: You started learning Taijiquan as a child from your father and grandfather, and you also learned and taught within the official Wushu establishment. How different was your family’s traditional training from modern training that Taiji students now receive?
Yang Fukui: It was quite different. Traditionally, we do not train by long sequences of forms. We concentrate more on developing gongfu, but first it is necessary to discuss the connection between energy, gongfu, and forms.
Yang Lu-Ch’an first studied the Chen style. It is quite different from the Yang style. In the Chen style forms, the energy is open, and it is expressed outwardly and explosively.
The forms of the Yang style, on the other hand, keep the energy internalized. Although forms appear to be outwardly quiet and slow, they have a lot of internal movement.
BF: By forms, do you mean the complete set or “Taolu”?
YF: By forms, I mean the individual movements.
BF: Can you continue?
YF: In the Chen style, the energy opens and is expressed externally in the forms. This is possible because the energy pathways, or meridians, are opened. In the Yang style, the focus is more upon gathering the energy than expressing it in the forms.
In the Yang style, our focus is slightly different. Although we must use explosive energy during a fight, we train by utilizing slow, soft movements that also have an inner hardness. We focus on utilizing our spirit to generate both the energy and the movement. This is also best accomplished by practicing the forms slowly, combining softness and hardness. The movements must have a quality of stillness. This is very good for health and internal energy circulation.
My grandfather told me that if you practice Taijiquan, you must develop a spiralic internal energy. This spiralic circulation is not externally apparent to others who may be watching you, but internally, it is there. To outsiders, the forms appear beautiful and balanced because of the spiral quality of the internal energy circulation. Yang Lu-Ch’an’s method results in the development of increased awareness and sensitivity to the world around you.
There is a famous story of the bird that could not fly off Yang Lu-Ch’an’s hand because every time the bird attempted to fly, he could neutralize the birds push-off by dropping his hand. This was because he was sensitive enough to feel the bird’s push off.
Therefore, in Yang style Taijiquan, we practice in order to increase our internal energy and our sensitivity and devote much time to cultivating the heart spirit. The heart spirit is our internal energy field, or circulation. It allows us to internally transform our body, keep our health, and refine our spirit. This is the essential foundation of traditional Yang style Taijiquan practice.
With this basic philosophy, Yang Lu-Ch’an combined Daoism with Taijiquan and modified the Chen style into a new style of art. He reinterpreted the principles behind the old Chen system and created the training methods, hand forms, and weapons of Yang style Taijiquan.
It is well known that he was quite an effective fighter and there are no records of his losing a challenge. He also never attempted to unnecessarily hurt or kill a challenger. This is why the system became known to the Imperial Court in Beijing and why Yang Lu-Ch’an was invited to train the Imperial guards.
BF: How was the second generation of the Yang family affected by their fathers’ reinterpretation of Taijiquan?
YF: Yang Ban Hou and Yang Chen Hou’s practices were both somewhat different from each other, as well as from modern practice. I think if they or their father were alive today and observed modern Taijiquan, they would not recognize much of what we call the Yang style Taijiquan.
BF: How did they practice then?
YF: First of all, they devoted most of their practice to gongfu and martial arts, not to health or “spiritual development,” although these two latter aspects certainly underlied their practice. Their emphasis was different. For example, they never practiced more than a two or three form or movements in sequence, in order to develop fighting skill and gongfu, and they never linked more than five forms together. There were no such things as the 24 or 85 or 108 form Taijiquan. Only two or three forms at a time were used for the solo practice of gongfu.
According to my grandfather, Yang Chen Hou’s practice stressed more form combinations while his brother, Yang Ban Hou, put more emphasis upon push hands for fighting and two-man practice. Yang Ban Hou also had fewer students than younger brother, perhaps because his teaching sessions were very rough and painful, as there was a lot of contact. Similarly, in the third generation, my great grandfather, Yang Xiao Hou, was also more interested in push hands and fighting. He had far fewer students than his brother Yang Cheng-fu. He was more “closed door” and interested in preserving the family’s practice. Yang Cheng-fu was a more of a public figure, and his desire was t promote the study of Yang style Taijiquan throughout China.
Therefore, he created the Taolu, which is known in English as “The Long Form.”
The Long Form Taijiquan set is good for health and for improving the quality of the body’s vital energy. But in order to fight, one must learn how to build u[p the energy and then explosively send it out. My grandfather told me that Yang Chen Hou’s energy was very elastic and spring-like during push hands, while Yang Ban Hou’s energy was more explosive and heavy.
Therefore, Taijiquan has several ways in which one can practice. The first way is to practice for physical exercise and emotional well-being. The second way is to practice Taijiquan to open one’s energy and to be able to use the energy in explosive expression. This second way serves as a basis for fighting.
Whatever direction one chooses, it is also good to practice push hands with another person. Push hands can both help to increase one’s sensitivity and explosivity, and also serve as an introduction to fighting. In addition, a higher level fighter can more easily use explosive force, while lower level Taiji practitioners use brute strength in pushing or striking the opponent instead. This is because they do not possess the inner sensitivity and ability to generate sufficient power and force by using the whole body together.
BF:How are push ands and fighting different?
YF: If you watch someone practice the Taiji forms, they are performed slowly, peacefully, and quietly. Fighting is different. Push hands is preliminary training for fighting and usually starts off slowly. In push hands one also has to “listen” or “sense” the opponent’s force, and to remain relaxed and soft while receiving an opponent’s force prior to responding.
In fighting, the opponent does not attack softly or slowly. The attack is as rapid as possible. In Taiji fighting, with experience, one can follow the opponent’s force, and use their own force and their energy to defeat them.
This method is part of Hua Jing, or the “mysterious force” of Taijiquan. Hua Jing is gained through many years of advanced practice, which allows you to summon a great amount of force from a deep state of centered relaxation and connectivity within your body, of the bones, ligaments, tendons, and muscles, to achieve spring-like explosive power and minimal expenditure of are your own energy.
If I want, I can use your energy to fight you, by allowing you to fully extend yourself to the point where you are off-balance. I then redirect your energy back to you in order to defeat you. This must be executed very quickly. If you attempt to attack me quickly, I use circular or spiralic movement to gain the advantage and defeat you.
If you attack me with a slow, sustained force, I will become very soft and follow your force. I allow you to overextend, after which I pull you off balance. Hence, I follow you and then you follow me. Therefore, I have to use little of my own energy to accomplish this. If I really want to hurt you, I can add more of my own energy to make the counter-attack more powerful and destructive.
BF: In the traditional way of practice, how did the earlier Yang masters practice the forms to enhance their fighting skills?
YF: First of all, they would initially practice slowly and softly, but they would also practice the forms and sequences with speed and explosive power. The kicks and punches would also be done at full speed, but the kicks are internally generated by utilizing the power of the whole body. This sudden emission of force, using the internal methods, can cause deeper penetration and internal organ damage. It is not just muscular force emitted from the arms or legs; it uses the whole body. It can be achieved only by practicing Taijiquan as gongfu. You can only learn this from a master who understands the internal method of generating power.
BF:What other kinds of basics did they practice traditionally besides forms and push hands?
YF:: As in any Chinese martial art, one has to develop adequate flexibility through stretching. This is often not appreciated by many people in the West who learn Taiji. Although Taijiquan Taolu will help you obtain better flexibility, if you study Taijiquan as a martial art, it is required. After one gains adequate flexibility, one can start training the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones for strength and rooting. This is done by practicing in lower stances and using special weights, the long staff, and the Taiji ball.
BF: In researching some of the history of your family before this interview, I noticed that, especially in Tenjin, many masters of Xingyiquan, Baguazhang, and other martial arts also learned Taijiquan.
YF:: In the 19th century, China was a turbulent society, and many people would learn some type of martial art for self-defense. It was fairly unique, but in Tenjin, where there were a lot of martial artists, there was an open exchange within the Wushu associations that formed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Martial artists were often subject to many challenges and fights, causing emotional mental stress. Taijiquan is very good for quieting the emotions, as it is done slowly and softly. The Yang Taiji forms are very “quiet” compared to other martial arts. Therefore, many martial artists that specialized in other systems were attracted to Yang style Taijiquan.
If you can relax your mind and body, you can relax the emotions and become empty. This also enhances your abilities in other martial arts. Yang style Taiji is particularly soft and peaceful, which makes it very suitable for this purpose.
This is also why it has become popular today with many people who seek to lessen the stress of everyday life, as well as in hospitals and by senior citizens. The mental and physical health benefits of Taijiquan, especially Yang style Taijiquan, have been documented by scientific study both in China and in America.
BF: Can you tell me a little bit more about the differences between Yang Ban Hou and Yang Chen Hou and their personalities?
YF: Yang Ban Hou was a fierce fighter and more severe with his students than his brother, Yang Chen Hou,
BF: To return to the basic training of Yang Taijiquan, besides stretching, individual forms, and push hands, what else did the early Yang family practice for gongfu training?
YF: In Yang style Taijiquan, as well as in other internal martial arts, it is necessary to follow the cycle of natural change, the seasons and weather, and the four directions. This is very important.
If you practice Taiji and you are not aware of the differences in the energy of the daily cycle or the seasons, your practice cannot become very deep. You must follow Nature in your practice. This is essential.
BF: Can you further discuss the Taiji ball and other training aids that are used in traditional Yang style Taiji?
YF:: Yes, There are several. One is Taijixio, or Taiji ball. This ball is very heavy. The ball’s weight was usually between 2.5 to 10 kilograms (5.5 to 22 pounds). Some were made of leather and filled with sand and were hard on the inside. Others were made of wood.
One must use one’s muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones to perform the movements. By using the whole body to practice, we can get a lot of energy. In order to achieve this, however, we must practice from the core of our heart spirit.
If a teacher only teaches you the Taiji forms, or any of the training methods or weapons, this is the beginning level. If the teacher also teaches the student how to control the emotions and how to practice utilizing the heart spirit, this is a very high level of teaching. We called this “Gaoji.”
But the student must be ready for this kind of teaching. They must be open enough and have sufficient awareness to grasp the underlying principles, in order to be able to use them effectively in practice.
Physically, for internal martial arts, you also need strong bones, strong tendons, strong ligaments, and strong muscles. If your spirit is strong, you can heal your bones, ligaments and, in fact, your whole body, and use your heart spirit for gongfu, fighting, and Taolu. This is very high practice.
BF: How old were you when you first started to learn Yang Taijiquan?
YF: I started at six years of age, but I did not like it. I liked fast acrobatic exercise. Therefore, as a child I liked to practice external martial arts. I again became very interested in Taijiquan at 17 years of age and I began to vigorously study with my grandfather and father. Between the ages of six and 17, I learned much of our family’s Taiji, but it was not my favorite.
I also learned Baguazhang and Xingyiquan from my maternal granduncles. I liked Xingyi best at that time because it is explosive, but I preferred to practice external martial arts, and both my brother and I learned from some excellent teachers.
BF: How about your father and grandfather. How old were they when they began to learn:
YF: Both of them began as children. My grandfather exclusively practiced Taiji from the age of six, but my father also learned other internal martial arts, as well, as a child.
Very few children studied Taiji. Most of my father’s and grandfather’s younger students were in their early twenties. When my father was 12 years old, he devoted his full time practice to Taiji, but he always told me that when a child practices Taiji, it is usually not a deep practice. It is mainly play.
From six years old until he was 12, he was not able to comprehend or experience “energetic practice.” By the time he was 12, perhaps from repetitively practicing the Taiji forms and because of his father’s influence, he began to experience energy circulation during his practice.
BF: Can you discuss the other training aids that your family uses to practice Taiji gongfu?
YF: First, we use a heavy cube-shaped weight. It is used for certain simple exercises to help strengthen the bones, tendons, muscles, and ligaments. It is usually done in a low posture.
Next we progress to the Taiji ball, which is more advanced, as it incorporates circular and spiraling movements while holding the ball in a variety of exercises. It is also done in low postures and can vary in weight from light to heavy, as your root deepens and you become stronger.
There is also the long staff for which we have basic exercises. There is no Yang style long staff Taolu. The Taiji staff is similar to Xingyi and Bagua long staff exercises.
BF: When did you start to practice Taiji fighting?
YF:I had become accomplished in push hands by the age o f18, having pushed a lot with my grandfather, father, older brother, and their advanced students. I later even won a national championship competition in Weihua City, Shandong Province, in 1984 in the middleweight division of Yang style push hands.
If I tried to push my father and grandfather, they would become very soft and empty, but when they wanted, they could emit tremendous force, which permeated your whole body on impact. Push hands requires you to sense the opponent and follow them. If they are fast, you must move faster. You must start after them and finish before them. If they move slowly, you must find a way to change their direction and cause them to lose their balance.
Strictly speaking, Taiji practitioners usually do not “practice” fighting by sparring for practice. When we have to fight, we fight. As in other internal martial arts, we devote more time to developing internal power and good gongfu, by cultivating Fa-li and Fa-jing.
Of course, one gains fighting experience mainly by fighting, but the application of powerful attacks are soft, elusive responses to an opponent’s attack, and the ability to both follow and redirect the opponents force is more the product of good training in the other aspects of Taiji that we have discussed. If your skills are good, then you need to fight to be able to learn how to use them, while keeping the relaxed, centered mental state of Taijiquan.
The foundation of Taiji fighting comes in part from push hands, although push hands is not all there is to fighting. Most Taijiquan fighting utilizes close fighting methods, but in push hands we still have to adhere to some form, which is the basis for our movement. Fighting is much more free and without forms.
There are two general types of push hands. One-handed and two-handed push hands. One-handed push hands is basic. Both one-handed and two-handed push hands can be divided into standing and moving push hands. One progresses from standing to moving push hands, as well as to Da Lu, or the “Great Pulling” techniques, which teach you how to follow the opponent and attack them. In addition, one must practice Peng (Ward Off), Lu (Roll Back), Ji (Squeeze or Jostle), An (Press), Cai (Pluck or Grab), Lie (Split), Zhou (Elbow Stroke), and Kao (Bump). This is closer to real fighting.
BF: What if one fights with an opponent is not trained in Taiji?
YF: Taiji fighters will usually look for the opponent’s center and attempt to uproot their balance by whatever technique is used.
BF: How important are the kicks and punches that one practices in the forms?
YF: In the forms, one practices the kicks and punches very slowly, but when we use them, we use very fast moves. Kicks and punches in a fight and in the forms are different. For example, although a kick may be high in the form, the kicks in fighting are usually low kicks.
Internal martial arts requires that the whole body must have root. Without root, Taiji fighting is not as effective. To kick implies the loss of some root. Yang Cheng-fu slowed down the speed of the kicks in the form. Before him they were practiced with speed and some rooting. Therefore, the kicks are executed low to minimize loss of rooting.
BF: In the West, many books have been written suggesting that the Yang family possesses two separate methods of training and there are two separate Tao Lu, one “outdoor” for the public, and a second “indoor” for the family. Is this true?
YF: This is true, but probably not in the way you think. In internal martial arts, each move has gongfu, and each move can transform into many variations. These numerous variations and the gongfu needed to apply the techniques comprise true internal martial arts.
For example, some people need only to use one form, such as “Loxiapu,” or “Grasp the Sparrow’s Tail,” to win a fight. These people are usually highly advanced internal, marital artists. They can do this because of superior speed, sensitivity, training, and internal power.
Therefore, our so-called “Family Taolu” is really the method by which we train, not a series of secret forms. It is rather the ability to take each form or a series of several forms, and utilize them effectively. This is traditional Yang Taiji training. You will recall that the Taolu did not develop substantially until the 3rd generation. The Taolu created by Yang Cheng-fu and others are good fro health and conditioning but are not that meaningful for fighting as the training methods we have discussed: the ball, weight, staff training, and push hands.
BF: What is your opinion as to how old one must be to study Taijiquan for gongfu?
YF: While it is healthy for your people to train in Taijiquan, it is my opinion after studying both traditional and modern training methods that heavier, more intense training methods such as Taiji long spear or Taiji ball, are better reserved for students once their development reaches adulthood. If they practice these methods when they are younger, it may not be that healthy and may be very stressful to their joints, muscles, tendons, bones, ligaments, and internal organs.
If they are practicing with light weapons, that is okay, but they will not reap all the benefits of why we practice with these weapons. It is better for them to focus more on softness, flexibility, and eventually explosive power when they are younger. By 18 or 20, their internal energy is very strong and they can then learn these other methods.
BF: How similar or different was your grandfather’s practice from your father’s?
YF: My grandfather practiced only Taijiquan for most of his life. He had a lot of internal energy and fighting skills. He stressed the importance of imagination and the power of Nature in his practice. My father talked about intuitively sensing the natural Bagua or eight directions and the process of Natural Change, such as in the Yi Jing.
But my father was required to teach the government mandated forms, unlike my grandfather, who only practiced and taught traditional Taijiquan. Because my father had to teach modern Taijiquan, perhaps he could not as much convey the deeper training to many of his students. Nor could he teach the old way as often as my grandfather.
Both my grandfather and my father stressed to me that, although I had to teach the new way, I must remember and continue to practice the old way, in order to enhance vital energy, feel the changes of Nature, be able to combine hardness with softness together, and be able to emit the explosive energy of Taijiquan. If you only practice Taolu, this is difficult to achieve.
BF: Some publications and some Yang style Tajiquan teachers teach standing qigong postures along with the Taolu. In the family, do you use or are there any standing postures that you practice traditionally?
YF: We do not have specific standing postures, although the forms and Taolu should mostly be practiced very slowly. How slow depends upon your ability y to feel or guide the energy. The slower you practice, the more you can guide the energy. Normal speed takes about 20 minutes. My grandfather, Yang Jun Xiang, would usually practice each set for about 30 to 40 minutes.
In my experience, the Taolu, or set, was never practiced quickly. Speed is used only for the traditional short combinations of individual forms of fighting, or at times, in push hands.
We have already discussed the inner state of consciousness that should occur during the practice of Yang style Taijiquan. This, perhaps, could be likened to the internal state of some qigong practices.
(Interviewer’s note, based on Yang Fukui’s discussions in the past: Yang Fukui teaches the same set as Yang Cheng-fu, as well as the 24 and 42 forms for competition and the 48 forms for broadening the student’s experience. But they are not the original, traditional or family practice. He said when you practice traditionally, you first work on developing tranquil natural energy. Later, you concentrate on power and gongfu.
Repeating short combinations helps to develop intent for fighting and also to develop qi. It is not to develop form. Each movement is practiced repeatedly on the left and right sides. This enables the mind to find the fighting intent within the movement. The combinations were practiced slowly and only executed rapidly in push hands or fighting situation, which might be among family members and indoor students or in actual fighting outside the family.
It was not required to practice a certain number of repetitions per practice session or concentrate on how often you practiced each movement.
The focus was on practicing the energy. This can be done anywhere, even standing in line. The most important thing is to develop your gongfu.
At a deeper level, you should practice according to the meridians of the body and their associated times of the day and year.
In the beginning, on a physical level, your practice must be more repetitive, to make the movements natural and to allow the mind to inculcate the feeling of the movements, to deepen your root, and develop softness, flexibility, and power.
As your practice becomes deeper, it becomes of an energetic practice. That is why an advanced practitioner can gain more than a less advanced practitioner in a shorter period of time.)
BF: What did your grandfather, Yang Jun Xiang, tell you about your great-grandfather Yan Xiao Hou?
YF: My great-grandfather died a long time before I was born, so I never met him, but my grandfather told me that when he practiced, you would sense the power of the energy in his movements. It was very unique. He was also more “indoor” than his brother. He was a hard teacher and like to practice fighting.
BF: In Yang style, what constitutes the basic practice methods?
YF: It is essential that in internal martial arts, one must use the heart spirit to practice any movement or forms.
The first goal is to develop flexibility. In order to develop gongfu for internal strength and fighting, one should also train by practicing the circular movements of Taijiquan both on the left and right in low postures as well as with the heavy square weight, and later with the heavy staff and Taiji ball.
One should also use a slightly heavier weapon when practicing Taiji weapons than one would sue in external weapons practice. This will stimulate the development of internal energy in one’s muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones, thereby stimulating the bone marrow to increase vital energy and circulation.
My father said that the blood is the physical connection between the Heart Spirit (vital connection of internal energy in the body) and the Yi, or mind, as blood circulates throughout the body and the brain. Therefore, the goal of these practices is twofold: to stimulate the circulation of blood and qi. On a practical level, this will help give one good gongfu.
BF: After practicing these basic exercises, what else does one practice?
YF: The individual forms, both on the left and right sides, one-handed and two-handed push hands, standing and moving push hands, emphasizing Peng, Lu, Ji An, Cai, Lie, Zhou, and Kao (“ward off,” “pull back,” “press,” “press down,” “grab,” “split,” “elbow,” “shoulder”), and two-person Taiji individual fighting forms.
There is a Taolu which is much newer, broadsword forms for a single person and two persons (the Taolu came later), straight sword forms for single and two persons, (the Taolu came later), heavy long staff forms (there is no Taolu), and staff and spear forms (and their Taolu) for single and two persons.
BF: You have practiced a number of internal martial arts. How would you characterize the Yang style differences in push hands between the Yang style and other styles, as well as other internal systems?
YF: In the Yang style, our mental state should be without preconceived intention: “I will follow you and react to your intention.” Therefore, it appears soft or quiet on the outside, but internally it is full of movements. Yang style push hands is more Yin than Chen style push hands.
In Chen style push hands, although you still utilize the principle of “Ting Jing,” one uses more intention. “I want to push you.” Therefore, Chen style push hands, like their Taolu, is more full and explosive.
Xingyi push hands is also more explosive than Yang style push hands. The principles is to keep going in with explosive force and to uproot the opponent.
In Bagua push hands, one circles the opponent, usually from the outside, and follows their energy. One catches the opponent in a spiraling motion and then emits explosive attacks and uprooting force to defeat them.
BF: Are there separate spear and staff forms?
YF: Yes. The traditional spear was a “she qiang” or “snake spear.” This allowed one to use pulling or “Lu” methods, as well as stabbing methods with the blade, but the standard spear is also acceptable.
BF: Thank you, Master Yang, for these insights into your family’s Taijiquan. It has been very enlightening.
YF: You’re welcome.
T’AI CHI – Vol. 24, No. 5 AN INTERVIEW WITH YANG FUKUI xinyiwuguan.com