A Further Explanation of the Concept of Qi

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You who know me and have followed this blog would know that I am not a great promotor of the concept of Qi. I’ve never explained it as anything magic or a kind of energy or similar. My main teachers used this word never or at least very rarely sparingly. I don’t think I have ever used this term in any kind of teaching situation except in a few lectures I’ve held in Chinese thought and philosophy. What I write here though might sometimes seem a bit confusing as I still use this term occasionally. I have understood that I have written different things about the concept of Qi in different posts on this blog and thus I see the need to put the most important things together and try to explain better what Qi actually means.

One of my teachers, a Chinese who really knows about Chinese culture and history, thought that maybe it would be better to get rid of the term completely here in the west, and instead try to explain what is done in Tai Chi with a Western way of thinking, with a terminology that is used in Western terminology. I do concur. The term Qi is very much a cultural thing from a language that sometimes work quite different from what we are used to. In China, the character of Qi is something you meet often in the common Chinese language. In modern Chinese, it’s there in the word for angry. If you are angry you say that you have “too much Qi”. And “Weather” consists of the characters of “heaven” and “Qi”. And there are other examples as well. Chinese is a situational, contextual language where a term, concept or character gets its meaning through the context. A single character is often more a symbol, an idea that can be used in many different ways according to circumstance. So when Chinese teachers speak about qi in different contexts, a Chinese students can often understand what is meant, but a Western student might misunderstand. If a Chinese Tai chi teacher would say “don’t use force, use qi”, then most likely, he or she doesn’t mean to use a magic energy. Instead, the teacher would mean something like taking a better posture and relax better. He would mean this because he would be referring to certain requisites that he has already spoken about and taught the class, things together that means “having Qi”. This is hard to explain, but I tried in an earlier post:

“This was said by a person who professionally practice Traditional Chinese Medicine: “Qi is the perfect function of an indent in human body.” So what does this mean? It means that when things function as properly as possible in the body, there is qi. If there is an unbalance in the body, then the qi might be weak or stagnant. “Qi” helps us in different ways to describe different states of the body. We could speak about the “Qi” of breath, or “Qi” of a punch when the body parts needed to breath or punch collaborate in the most optimum manner. For breath, the Qi of breath would the perfect collaboration of all parts of the body needed to breath.”

What is said above is about how this term is used generally in modern language. In Tai Chi though, the term “Qi” becomes a little bit more complicated because the modern use of the term is often confused with older definitions. Tai Chi practice has at least a part of its roots in Daoist practice, as in traditional Neidan. This is the same “nei”, the same character, used for “internal” in “Neijiaquan”, or the Internal School of Boxing. We usually use the same terminology and concepts as in Neidan practice (and also mix it with modern use in medicine and in Qigong). And this leads to a certain confusion as people tend to mix up an old meaning specific to an old school of philosophy with the modern use of this term. Chinese people know how to separate these different meanings of the term, but a person who is born in another culture and is not acquainted to the different language world will certainly have problems when different meanings of the same word collide.

And then there is an even more philosophical use of “Qi”. The philosophical concept of Tai Chi, or Taiji as in Taijiquan, is not a Daoist term, but a name invented by Zhou Dunyi a Philosopher who is considered as one of the forerunners to the Neo Confucian school which was the resurrection of Confucianism in China. Zhou Dunyi used Daoist concepts to explain the universe, but his view on the world, Man and ethics still belonged to the Confucian school of thought. Qi was a part of his metaphysical view and thus it’s hard to speak about the concept of Taiji without mentioning Qi. And there was another philosopher at the same time who has had an even greater impact on the concept of Qi, Zhang Zai, a thinker who believed that the basis for Universe and everything in existence was Qi. For him, Qi was an invisible force that penetrates and surrounds everything.

So the term Qi is not very useful here in the west as a teaching tool as people tend to mix up different meanings of the character, philosophical meanings, medicine and medical Qigong with a more modern use that is a function of the modern language. I still think that the word can have a certain use if you understand the meaning of Qi as a collection of certain prerequisites for internal and external aspects of body use. In Tai Chi we deal with internal awareness and internal sensations. Tai Chi practice can certainly make the body warm. And with a lot of practice you can become quite good at warming up your body fast with small means (which I jokingly wrote about here). I usually just call this heat or steam for lack of better words. It’s not magic and not an energy, it’s just a consequence of doing things right. But this heat or warmth can be a quite good way for you to measure if you really do things right. And thus in a more modern way of using the Chinese language, there is a reason to refer to not only the heat you fell, but the whole internal body state as “qi”. But as no one else than you can feel what is going on inside of you, it’s probably better to not talk about qi at all just to avoid confusion.

You can also hear Mr Yang Hai in the interview below (Chinese w english text) speak about the differences between Qi in philosophy and health arts and for martial arts. No one explain it as clear and concise as him. His explanation starts at approx 6.50 or earlier  at 6.00 if you want to hear him explain the 5 different types of Qigong.

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Qi on the Inside, Jin on the Outside

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In this post, or rather article if you look at the length of it, I will describe the differences and relationships between Qi and Jin, one concept that describes an inner steam and another concept that describes an art specific expression of power. 

In the last post I wrote about the concept of Qi I said that I am not the greatest believer in what this energy can actually do. I don’t really like to speak about qi and I seldom use this term when I teach about Tai Chi. I feel that it’s unnecessary and that it tend to rather complicate things than explain. And still, I tend to write more blog posts about this subject than about anything else. Ironic, isn’t it? For a person who don’t know me very well I must look like one of the greatest promotors of Qi.

But still, even if I don’t like using this word or concept very much, I do accept that it’s a term that is used a whole lot and that it’s necessary to explain things around this concept, about the history and culture so that it can be better comprehended for what it is. One of my Tai Chi teachers, the one that had the most knowledge about Chinese culture and history, he didn’t use this word very much and thought that Qi is a philosophical concept. But this still doesn’t mean that he rejected Qi or even diminished it. I remember one time when a student was showing a qigong posture she was taught from another teacher and spoke about how qi circulated through it. He adjusted her posture slightly and said “now you have qi circulation”.

So even if we should have a bit distance to this concept and try to not over-use it, Qi is certainly still a useful concepts if it’s used right and in the right concept. We use the term Qi in Tai Chi for something we can feel on the inside. When we do certain things right, we can stimulate heat in our bodies, stimulate, keep and circulate, a process that the Chinese used the picture of steam to describe.

An internal process that produces steam

So what we do when we practice Tai Chi is that we follow a certain way to do things practically. We relax our minds by getting rid of our intellectual thought process and making our heart calm and strive for a state of emptiness. We relax our bodies in such a way that the body keeps its own structure erect, we open the joints and keep a relaxed, natural posture. We breath slow and deep and sink the strength down to the feet.

When we do all of this correct we can feel a certain heat. Then when we move, we move with the body as a whole, the movements come rooted from the feet, centered in the Dantian. The limbs move in unison and are directly coordinated from the Dantian and all of the movements follow the breath naturally. We move evenly, carefully, to maintain this heat or steam as we move. When we move, we try to listen to our body’s own wants, how it wants to move, and help it to move rather than forcing the movements.

A common thing people say in the internal martial arts is that “where the Yi go, Qi follows”. If you focus on something, the Qi goes there. But there’s also a saying that you should never focus directly on qi, if you do then it gets stuck. So we should never “think qi” or try to feel the steam. We can not make this feeling stronger by wanting the heat to get stronger. We just need to maintain the basic prerequisites, the conditions that we use to stimulate and keep this heat. The more we practice, the faster we can get into this body-mind state and the better we can feel it.

So the Qi is on the inside, it’s something that happens because we do things right. The problem when we do things more practical, when we practice push hands or even fight, is that we must maintain very much the same conditions as we do when we practice solo exercises and make the Qi flowing. Easier said than done, right? We certainly don’t move slowly when we fight. But we should use a calm, empty mind and be very relaxed. We should sink internally and keep the feeling of being sunk. Maybe we don’t go as deep into ourselves and our meditative state when we try to use Tai Chi for real, but the basic conditions should still be there. We learn these conditions by practicing them to the extreme when we practice solo and controlled push hands exercises. Even if we don’t go as deep and use these conditions in the same extreme manner, we must still maintain them when we do things practically. Only then can our bodies express real Tai Chi Jin.

Use Jin, not Li not Qi

In Tai Chi  people sometimes say “don’t use Li, use Jin”. (Not to be confused with “use Yi instead of Li“) With the word Li we mean the brute, unrefined strength that anyone can use. In the martial arts we want to develop Jin, which is something refined, a skilled use of strength. Every martial art, or at least family of martial arts, have their own refined skills of expressing strength. The practitioners of different arts express strength differently by their own way to use their bodies. The Chinese character jin =  has the part of strength in it, the character for Li =, but also has the characters for river and work, giving the picture of an underground river, meaning something that flows through something. Or as how Jonathan Bluestein expresses it: “A power that passes through.” How accurate isn’t this about Tai Chi?!

In Tai Chi the term Jin means something Tai Chi specific. Jin is a direct expression of the internal body state. It’s really a power that passes through the body, from the inside to the outside. In Tai Chi, Jin is an external, direct expression of the internal body state. If the internal prerequisites are there, then qi is on the inside and Jin will be expressed on the outside.

Sadly, instead of “use Jin”, many teachers say “don’t use strength, use qi.” This was also something that one of my (least favourite) teachers used to say. But both qi and jin are expressions of the same internal body state (About these basic requisites I also like to use the word “integrity“). My first teacher understood this relationship better from a practical point of view. When he taught two man exercises, as redirecting force methods and applications and similar, he would always nag about the basic state in Tai Chi. He would constantly say things as “don’t tense up”, “relax better”, “sink better”, “sink the breath”, “move from the feet”, etc. But he would never say anything like “use qi.” Instead he would direct you practically to do the internal conditions right, to do things correct in a practical sense. He understood that if you do certain things right, the Jin would automatically be expressed. So expressing Tai Chi Jin is not about what you think or what you believe in, it all still boils down to what you practically do. Even how you think about these matters is only important to the extent that your way of thinking makes you do things correctly.

“Trying to use qi” is not one of these conditions. Let qi stay as the internal expression of the same conditions that make you express jin. Every single time I hear someone in demonstration say things like “now I sink my qi” or “you must sink the qi”, or even something like “I direct my qi into my opponent”, I get annoyed. Why? First, I’ll just point to the fact The Tai Chi classics doesn’t say anything about using qi. The Tai Chi classics doesn’t say “fa qi” or release qi, instead it says “fa jin”,  release jin. In the Tai Chi classics the term Qi is still mentioned. There’s a passage where it says that “the qi sinks”. But this doesn’t say anything about that you should actively sink the qi. With Chinese characters it is written: 氣沉丹田 or “Qi sinks to the Dantian”, The subject here is the character “Qi” and not “I”. There is no “I” here in this sentence as in “I sink the Qi.” It is the Qi that does the sinking. Lately I have become more or less allergic to all kinds of talk about qi because I believe that “sink the qi” is exactly the opposite to what Tai Chi practitioners need to hear. This is exactly the opposite to what you need understand about this concept. I try to give some of the people doing these demonstrations a benefit of a doubt, that the sometimes very well known and mostly respected people, in fact just confuse Qi and Jin. But I often have a feeling that they say things just for the show, to look better than they really are, and that they in fact have no interest to really teach what they show.

Create the internal conditions instead of getting stuck on words

Anyway, Qi or Jin, they are just words, one word that describes what happens on the inside when you establish certain conditions and one word to describe the external expression of the same conditions. As I said in another post, you don’t need to worry about Qi. You don’t need to even think in these terms. All you ever need to do is to practice the basic prerequisites in Tai Chi, and continue to deepen them by merely maintaining them as you continue to practice. When I look at many Tai Chi practitioners, in real life and in videos on the tubes, I see mostly only external movements, often disconnected where the hands lead the body instead of center. Much applications practice seems strictly technical and very much disconnected from the basic body methods of the art. Why are they concerned about basics when they practice a form and leave everything behind when they practice applications? So how you build your foundation in Tai Chi is the most important part of the development in this art, from beginning to the end. And obviously so if you want to become good in this art. If you look for a teacher, make sure that you have a teacher that has a good sense for the basic internal conditions and can teach the foundations in a most practical and detailed manner. If a teacher speak too much or too little about Qi is not important, the only is how well he or she can guide you practically.

 

 

A Small Question About Tai Chi Fighting Ranges & Distances.

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Different martial arts focus on specific fighting ranges, one or several. Kicking styles usually prefer a greater distance to the opponent compared to a wrestling art. In General, distances can be summed up to:

  • Outside kicking Range
  • Kicking Range
  • Striking Range
  • Throwing Range
  • Clinch Range
  • Grappling Range
    • (/Ground Fighting Range)

Most combat oriented Tai Chi practitioners agree that Tai Chi is a close range fighting style. Some people call Tai Chi a punching art, others a throwing arts and yet others claim that it’s a grappling art. Still most people agree about the close range, that Tai Chi works best, or is designed mostly for from the distance you can set up a throw, make a clinch or grapple. Yet many seem to be not so sure about how to make Tai Chi work, and they seem to not know about genuine Tai Chi fighting strategies.

If Tai Chi is a close fighting range, then why do so many people who wants to learn how to use Tai Chi, practice fighting by using common distance point sparring? When people try to use this art in sparring, they mostly have a common sparring mind-set. They start on distance, try to keep distance and keep on chasing and trading punches. What does this has to do with close-in fighting? And if you look at how most people practice applications and techniques, they practice while punching and attacking from at least a striking distance. Even when practicing push hands many practitioners stand far from each other, barely reaching each others hand s while rocking back and forth.

No wonder why people question if Tai Chi works or not. They claim that Tai Chi is designed to work at a certain distance, yet they practice Tai Chi combat and self-defence by using mainly another distance. I wonder why?

Don’t Worry Too Much About Doing Things Wrong

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Teachers put a lot of pressure on their students sometimes not realizing it. Less ambitious students, those who practice Tai Chi for having something to do as a hobby or to have a social platform probably won’t get affected. But it can become a problem for the ambitious practitioners, those who really want to get somewhere in their art and develop real skill. I’ve read things lately as that the student should not experiment too much or try to develop their art by themselves and instead follow the teacher and the curriculum as exactly as possible. Someone wrote that correcting something wrong is hard, so it’s important to practice correct from the beginning. I’ve also read things about the important of things as reverse breathing and a whole lot of descriptions about how to do reverse breathing.

I remember a whole lot of things I struggled with, wondered about and sometimes worried about when I was young. There are so many different things that you should know and understand. There’s a whole lot of pressure on students. Sometimes it’s hard to ask about things, sometimes it might feel embarrassing to ask, and sometimes it might be hard to verbalize questions and express your thoughts.

But the thing is that we all have different roads, we all understand different things faster or slower. Having gaps in the understanding of things, having hard to grasp things and sometimes misunderstand things is a part of every practitioner’s journey. Knowledge always comes from practical experience and trial and error. There’s nothing wrong with experimenting, trying things. There’s nothing wrong with misunderstanding things, being wrong, being corrected or having to re-learn things. If you are dedicated to this art, then your progress will always sometimes be faster, sometimes go slower. Sometimes you will need to re-evaluate things you have done, accept that you have done things wrong and move forward again. Occasionally you might want to laugh at yourself or curse at yourself. And all of this is okay. Your journey will never be straight and no wrong turn you make can eventually stop you from going forward and reach your goal as long as you continue to practice and try to keep it in sight.

One very wise man said that every kind of human development and progress have a certain pattern that can be described as “two steps forward, one step back.” This is very true and if you continue you continue your Tai Chi journey you will always experience the truth of this statement. You will always go backwards now and then, but the road still leads forward. Don’t worry too much about rules, restrictions and about what you need to do, what, when or how often. There is no absolute path and every teacher has different ideas about what is right and wrong and best and bad. So it’s better to take it all not so seriously and to not worry too much. Rather important, in my opinion because your road will be long, is to have fun and try to find ways to enjoy the practice, alone as well as with others. And as you will certainly screw things up along the way, my friendly advice is that, if you already don’t know how, should take things lightly and be ready to laugh at yourself.
… And you know this already, that life is short, so make sure you always enjoy what you do.

The Touch of a Master

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There’s a great, great difference between how a “common” Tai Chi practitioner and an advanced practitioner “feels”. You really need to meet people in real life and touch hands with them to understand their level of skill.

When you meet up with common practitioners you won’t feel anything particular when you feel their hands. They feel common, nothing special. That kind of practitioner can probably show different applications or methods, but you will always sense that there’s a technical approach, what they do is mostly based on techniques and not on adapting to a certain body method. Even their push hands feel like nothing special even if they can be sensitive and understand following.

An advanced practitioner should have a developed Shenfa, a body method. What this means is that the practitioner moves, use his balance and body, in a learned manner. What they do is based on many years of experience. Good practitioners step in and out of this body method by will. Even better practitioners have this natural. They don’t even need to think about it, their Shenfa is a natural part of whatever they do. By merely touching an arm or a hand of this kind of practitioner, you will feel something very different compared to a common practitioner. But there’s more to it. All of the great practitioners and “masters”, they all feel different. Their touch is a trademark, it has their own unique characteristics like the unique voice of a singer. Many people have tried to copy the voices of singers like Frank Sinatra or Aretha Franklin. But the brilliance of something that sounds simple and effortless is  mostly something unique, something hard to copy and most often impossible to replace. There’s something similar with the touch from someone who has developed a shenfa. You can’t really copy what they do and how, but you can still develop your own signature “voice”.

Some good teachers touch will feel light as a feather, others can be felt heavy and unmovable. Some feel connected, some others don’t. Some great practitioners will constantly change touch, angle and leave you with a feeling of uncertainness or confused. They all feel very different and the only way you are getting to know their own approach to their art, is not about listening to what they say, but about touching their hands. You can learn a whole lot by touching and feeling a great practitioner. Their whole art is summed up in their own Shenfa, in their body method. And the only way to get a sense of how they really use their own bodies is by one way or another touching hands with them.

I remember the first times touching hands with my first teacher who I consider my primary teacher and the one I have spent most time with. his hands and arms felt completely empty. When he evaded or redirected an incoming push or punch, he would not have any connection between his limb and the rest of the body. Sometimes he would react very fast with his body and change, but often when you pushed his arms or at his body, he would let you in close before he re-directed you away.

His teacher Bill, who I also studied for periodically, would give you a sense of being connected, rooted. He had a certain stretching quality throughout his body, something that was evident in his forms as well. He would let you feel this and he felt solid. Yet, as soon as you touched his hand he would change the angle and never let you push directly at his balance. When he issued power, or performed his fajin, he was so connected from the root that it was impossible to direct away his push if you didn’t have timing and evaded him early.

Bill’s teacher, who I also studied for, was very, very different from every other teacher I had met. Mr He was absolutely brilliant, precise and exact. He felt rather connected and every movement he did was connected to the back and to his scapula. You could see the shoulder blades moving, sometimes sticking right out from his body, as he made subtle adjustments with the smallest leverage. It was not a question of having the pleasure to feel his touch or having time to study his movements. As soon as he touched your arm or hand, you would find yourself on the floor, one way or another, but mostly just by sitting right next to him where he could easily reach your head with his fist. I don’t believe I will ever have the pleasure to meet a practitioner of his magnitude again.

Another teacher that I had in Beijing, Teacher Ding, was a rough or crude looking fellow. He taught painting and calligraphy as well as Tai Chi. He smoked a lot and used to spit on the class room floor. Yet, when he performed his Tai Chi form, he was extremely soft when he moved. All of his body was well coordinated, but he moved very gracefully, yet had a certain power in his movements. Just like with Bill, it was a real pleasure just watching him. But Ding Laoshi was much, much softer and felt very soft. His touch was extremely light. When you touch hands with him, you would find yourself stumbling in air.

I might have something to say about a few other teachers and practitioners I have met, but mostly I have nothing special to say. Some of them I appreciate a lot, and even if they might be very good, their approach is very different from mine. So what about me? I wouldn’t call myself anywhere near “master” level, and I don’t think I ever will use such a title. But I have made some kind of progression through the years. Many years ago, maybe halfway through my road up until today, I tried to shift between solid and insubstantial. One of my friends said that he sometimes thought he had me on the hook, but then I would suddenly empty myself, he felt like like pressing on a door that suddenly opened up. Back then, I had still a lot to learn and I could still become hard, stiff up and sometimes fell back into using strength. A few years later, I discovered lightness, the art of being light. It’s a bit peculiar that I hadn’t done so before, but I had very much been focusing on structure and alignment. But as I had truly understood lightness I also re-discovered softness and learned how to trust in “song” (relaxation/releasing), as started to understand the meaning of “emptiness”. I always practiced my own lightness and softness when I had my own group and tried to teach what I believed was the essence of this Art. But that was quite some time ago, about ten years ago from today. I seldom teach today, but hopefully it will become more of that in the future. I hope to find people who wants to travel the same kinds of roads. It would be interesting to feel how their touch would changed from year to year and to follow their journey.

If this post has interested you, please also read an article in another blog, Adam Mizner’s translation of Li Yaxuan’s text, a description of the different qualities of Fajin by his teachers and friends. I believe you would find it enlightening.