Just like in this beautiful, contemplative performance act, skill in T’ai Chi Ch’uan is a matter of understanding balance…
In my own opinion, for learning how to really understand T’ai Chi Ch’uan, the mind-set or attitude is far more important than the practice itself. Forms, drills, stance work, they can be visually perfected in every detail. But there will always be something missing if you don’t have the correct mind. If you have a certain attitude and mind-set, if you are eager to learn, always eager tio improve and to become better, to always understand more about what it really takes to master the art, then this attitude itself will help you to fill in the blanks, help you to understand details and to incorporate everything you learn in a way that will help your learning process to become the most efficient learning process as possible. When you are determined, focused, have endurance and understand how to approach the art with passion and creativity and take responsibility for your own learning process, then you have the right mind-set to understand the art and become good in it. There is hope for everyone, even the most miserable failure. The road for success is a road that you start in your own mind.
Set your goal and have it in mind. The more clear, specific and detailed this goal is, the more easy it will be for you to work to become what you will be. Every class will become like sculpturing your own progress according to your strong idea of what you want to become.
I remember my very first class when I was eleven years old. I remember exactly what I thought. I decided to become as good and better as my teacher, to achieve what he showed and what he spoke about, if it so will take twenty years to achieve. I told myself right there that I should continue to practice and never give up. The years to come, I tried to read as much on Tai Chi as I got hold on. I borrowed books from my teacher and I ordered books through Martial Arts stores. I also read a whole lot of books on Chinese philosophy, history and culture. When I was thirteen, I had already finished reading English translations on all of the major Chinese Taoist Classics, the Yijing and a whole lot of books on Chinese martial arts in general.
Always focus whatever you do. When you practice your form, pay attention to every small little details. Never let anything slip away. When you are in front of your teacher, pay attention to everything he says. Never let your mind wander or think about other things. Your Tai Chi class is the time to forget about everything else, to forget about duties, problems at your job, about your annoying Facebook friends. You need to really listen and take every word your teacher say very seriously.
When I had practiced about 8 years I started to go to summer sessions, and I think I went to them seven years in a row. The thing is that I have and I have always had a very good memory for what people say to me. Some stories and lectures from this time more than 20 years ago, I remember exactly, word for word, what my teachers said. From one summer camp to another, some of my fellow summer class mates seems to totally have forgot what a teacher said or showed a year later. I was always surprised because I had focused very deliberately on every word the teachers have said and I remember everything clearly. But some people don’t care very much, they are there, having a good summer time and don’t put effort in understanding and to make effort to consciously incorporate what a teacher say into his or her own practice. It’s a shame, but right here, most Tai Chi students own attitude really lacks.
No one can give you success. No one can teach you but yourself. There are no shortcuts, no secret ingredient, no magic pills. The time and effort is all yours and the road is yours to walk. You have the responsibility to listen to your teacher, learn what to learn, make effort and make the time needed. No one can help you to walk the road. That is something you must do by yourself. As long as you wait to find secrets or anything that can work as a shortcuts, you don’t have the correct attitude, not the right mind-set. Because Tai Chi Chuan is all about you. It’s not about your teacher, not about style or lineage, not about gaining something you can use to show off with. It’s only about you. And the sooner you realise that all your accomplishments depend on you taking responsible, the sooner and faster you will develop in your art. This part of your overall attitude is so important that I have written a blog post only on this, about taking responsibility.
Creativity is a concept that lies close to responsibility. I know what you ask yourself now or would like to ask me: Oh, why? Because learning Tai Chi and come to understand what it is, well, this is a bit like putting together a puzzle where there’s a whole lot of pieces missing. Tai Chi is a cultural phenomenon, something that has grown for centuries to become what it is today. It’s from another culture and another history. The terminology and concepts come from another kind of thinking, often abstract, often very different from ours. Thus, to understand Tai Chi and develop it as your own property of your own knowledge, you really need a creative approach. You need to turn around the puzzle pieces, examine them from different directions. You need to put all of the pieces together to form a comprehensible picture. And where pieces are missing, you need to create them by yourself to make the pieces match together. It’s quite a hard work, both mentally and physically to learn how to understand the art. But it’s also a lot of fun and a highly creative process.
In Tai Chi, endurance is not only to work hard or to practice a lot, but it’s more the persistence to not give up. When practice is fun and you feel like you develop rapidly or even take big leaps in the process, practicing a lot is not hard or difficult. The hardest part is in my own experience when things are going slow. Everyone experience periods when we feel that we don’t develop and everything stand still. This is the time you need endurance to stand boredom, to practice when it’s boring and keep on struggling when nothing happens. Just go on and practice and try to remind yourself of some of the other points here, as creativity, passion and humor. You will find ways to keep on struggling and find meaning in the practice as long as you don’t give up.
A very wise man said that all kind of human development is the development in a certain pattern: “Two steps forward, one step back.” How true isn’t this? Practice becomes easier if you understand this. You don’t need to develop in the same pace all of the time and too much eagerness or trying to press yourself too much is never good. One time when I succeeded to have a private talk with best teacher I’ve ever had, I told him that I really wanted to practice and become as good as possible. He smiled and said: “Just practice and don’t take it too seriously. Development needs to grow, so let it take the time it needs.” This was the best advice I’ve ever had. Don’t take it too seriously. You need some humor and be able to laugh at all your short-comings and mistakes. Starting to practice Tai Chi can be a very painful process. You will discover that you can not move as you want, that you have a lousy body control, balance and coordination. Even later when you find people who can handle you just as easy as a wind sweeps a way a leaf, you are bound to have your self-confidence broken. Many discovered flaws and many failures in many years ahead, you will eventually become aware of what it means to become good in your art. And then you will surely have a laugh when you think back on your struggles.
There’s a saying that endurance can take you to the top, but it’s the passion that makes you stay on top. To be frank, I don’t believe that Tai Chi becomes very difficult if you really love it. The passion for the art makes everything more easy, makes every aspects of the practice more enjoyable. However, if you don’t have the passion needed, the practice might become more hard and boring than necessary. Endurance alone won’t get you to the top in Tai Chi. You really need to love the art. The hard truth is that if you don’t find joy in the practice and don’t really love the art of Tai Chi Chuan, you should probably find something else. But if this message rings a bell within you, don’t be too sad. Try to find another teacher or another internal art. What you drove to practice Tai Chi might still be there inside you. And the world of the internal martial arts is vast and varied.
Song or relaxation in T’ai Chi Ch’uan has become my most favorite subject on this blog. Before I started writing about the art of T’ai Chi, I had no idea that there was so much to say and that it was possible to explore it in so many different ways. But of course, the most simple things are often the hardest to explain.
If you are not acquainted with the terms or words in this post and want to understand it more fully, it’s probably better to first read more about how I define song, or relaxation in Tai Chi, and also about peng. Or maybe this post will give you a better understanding about these concepts than any other text I’ve written before? Anyway, to understand certain things, it’s sometimes better to read much about them. Now, let’s get started:
Many people, including a large amount of Tai Chi practitioners, have the idea that Tai Chi can be too relaxed, too soft, which means that a certain amount of “al dente” is needed. They believe that their structure would collapse if they didn’t offer a certain amount of strength or resistance. Sometimes when they see form performances, they laugh. Some people laugh at Tai Chi practitioners, teachers and even masters with a good reputation because they believe what they see is collapsed or don’t have a certain clear structure or the angles that they believe is necessary for Tai Chi. Sometimes they are correct, but sometimes the visual appearance of a certain performance can deceive.
So how to be al dente, or how do you achieve something that make your structure to not collapse? In my own humble opinion, in Tai Chi, it’s extremely important that you must know to completely relax. Your mind and body should be completely empty. What does this mean? To be completely relaxed, what does it mean? To collapse down to the floor? Of course not. To understand how deep you can relax without falling down, I suggest you should spend some good amount of practice the basic tai chi standing meditation in the wuji posture, or the wujishi. My first teacher who didn’t care very much about names or the origin of things called it “standing Zen meditation”. I like this name, there is something nice about it. But it is not a Buddhist exercise, it’s a Tai Chi exercise. Some teachers regard it very high. Sun Lutang for instance suggested that you should always stand in this posture for approximately 20 minutes before practicing the tai chi form.
Then how do you do it. Just stand straight up, the feet a little bit apart. Men should stand shoulder width apart or if you are a women you can also stand with the feet apart according to you hip width if you prefer so. Tuck in the hips a little. You can close your eyes if you wish. Relax. Now, examine your whole body, examine every little inch, from the top of your head down to your toes and then up again. Go slowly, inch by inch, feel your body through your attention and look for tensions. Drop and relax every part of the body that have tension. You will find tensions that you were not aware of that they existed, be sure of that. Relax all of the body deeply. Relax your wight straight down. You will need several session for a long period of time before understanding what deep relaxation really is. You see, relaxation is not something anyone can do. It’s a skill that needs to be practiced and developed. You don’t need to stand in wuji every single day and you den’t need 20 minutes every time. But if you do it a few times a week, you will be able to relax more and better. As you learn to really relax your body, will come to understand that your body can hold up itself. You don’t need to force it and you don’t need to do anything by yourself to keep up the body. The body will take care of it by itself if you let it. If you are able to relax really deep, you will feel longer, your spine will stretch, your neck will feel taller and the head will suspend itself as it was suspended by a string above. And you won’t need to keep the tip of the tongue to the roof inside of the mouth. The tongue will automatically spread like a fan and put itself up to the roof of the mouth. All of this is your body’s own natural movements, how the muscles and your nervous system, will cooperate with the gravity.
Now you are starting to understand what your own body wants, how your body work when you let it take care of itself. The body wants to raise, it strives to take place like it wanted to become bigger. If you want to, you can call this natural reaction for “peng energy”. It is a kind of passive peng. Real peng energy, as in pengjin, the skill of peng, that you use is a more active form of the same thing. But you use it when you move and practice it with a partner as against a resisting opponent when you play tuishou or train on your applications.
To understand this energy or quality that can hold up your structure by itself you need to first have developed the skill to relax very deep. It needs to have become a developed skill, a skill that is better than how the average person can relax. And before you can be able to use it, you need to have practiced it against your partners so you can still keep quite a deep relaxed body state against someone who tries to push and feral you around and resists your movements with strength.
It’s not a very easy task to achieve. Just try to hit a punching or kicking bag as hard as you can, but at the same time try to relax completely. You will need a teacher or a partner to understand and check when and how you tense up. The whole idea with relaxing and letting the body take over the “keeping up the structure part” by itself is a little bit like Stanislavsky’s contradicting exercise as he told his students to stand in a corner and for 30 seconds and try to not think about a penguin. Not easy to do, because if you don’t forget the premise of exercise, you will obviously keep on thinking about a darn penguin. The thing is that relaxing to the extent that you let the body by itself take over demands a bit of faith. You won’t understand what is happening or why before you have tested it. You won’t be able to use it before you feel comfortable with keeping your body in a very relaxed state whatever happens. If someone throws a fist at you, your first natural reaction will be to tense, to defend yourself, and not to relax and trust your body to do what is right.
The amount of al dente that is necessary for tai chi, to keep up your structure and not collapse against an opponent is a minimum. But it’s also something that the body will take care of by itself if you let it. If you try to have a certain resistance or keep a certain tension before developing relaxation into a skill, your al dente will be too hard, too stiff. You will never understand real “song” or relaxation and your will never understand real “peng energy”. Relaxation comes first, second and always. It’s a skill that you need time to develop and time to learn how to keep always. First then you will be able to really use it.
Jin or jing, this Chinese character can be pronounced and romanized in both ways. People often translate it into “energy”. But “energy” is still not exactly what was originally meant. The eight Jins in T’ai Chi, “Ba fa” or “Ba jin” are the eight basic ways you can use the body. The term Jin has the connotation of a skill, something that is learned and developed through proper practice. They are considered as eight basic techniques, but in fact they are something that should be described much more as body skills than as techniques. The names for the eight jins are: 掤 peng, 捋 lu, 挤 ji, 按 an, 採 cai, 挒 lie, 肘 zhou, 靠 kao.
When people speak about these Jins they can mean either a technique, a movement in the form, or they can mean a basic body skill that has the same name. In fact the movements in the T’ai chi form which has the name of the Jin only resembles one example of how the Jin can be used. And also, every movement in a T’ai chi form belong to one of these jins. In Chinese calligraphy, there are eight basic strokes that make up all of the chinese characters. In T’ai Chi, the eight jins make up all of the movements in the form.
In the T’ai chi world, there is indeed a confusion about the definitions of the jins. Some things are described differently according to style, school and lineage. Most of the confusion has to do with not being able to separating the body skill from the individual examples in the T’ai chi form or with trying to translate the meaning according to the names. Everyone says that he or she is correct and everyone else is wrong. And so do I. You can listen to whom ever you like. But my advice is to have in mind that any complete system needs its own logic. If there is any kind of contradiction or something that doesn’t make sense, or some detail that seems off or misplaced, there is mostly some kind of mistake or flaw that can make the whole system fall flat. What I will try to do is to explain the jins in a detailed yet cohesive manner and in a way that all of the different parts hold together as a solid system. The way I will try to explain the jins is also somewhat different from how many others will explain it.
Why must the explanation be different? Well, what you should understand is that most of the T’ai chi body methods that are taught today are great simplifications of what so called indoor students or disciples are taught. If the eight jins resemble eight different body methods, then how “common” students will understand the concept of a Jin will differ from an advanced indoor student.
Anyway, there’s a common saying in tai chi that “Kai/He should be in every movement.” My first Yang style teacher tried to teach me this in my very first year. Later I encountered it from various teachers. They had a different take on the principle, but they all emphasized it as an important part of tai chi and form practice especially. What exactly does “Kai he should be in every movement” mean? Kai is usually translated as open, he is mostly translated to “close”. A general more simple explanation is that Kai and he is the movement of the body as whole body should work like a belch achieve circulation however you want to explain this. Traditionally it is said that these movements help you to pump up the Qi and use these movements to circulate it through out the body. If you want to use the old Chinese term “qi” or not, it is still true that “Kai He” type of movements will help you to build up a certain heat inside of the body. But “open and close” is not a complete translation or anyway near satisfactory explanation of this term. The common word for close or closing in Chinese is not “he” but “guan”. The real meaning of “he” is not really to close something, but to “connect”. The character for he looks like a house. In Tai Chi it has a similar meaning because every movement is a certain formation of the body, a body structure.
“To connect” in tai chi means that the angles of the body is as strong as possible so the body structure is as strong as possible. The structure demands certain angles as well as support from a strong base. The “he” or “close” means to connect the structure from the foot through the legs, gua, back and spine, shoulder blades, arms, right out to the fingertips. Kai means to “open” as in open up the structure. Another word that was used earlier together with “he” is zhan or stretch. Kai or zhan means that you need to open up the joints before connecting. “Kai” is straightening the spine, “he” is to fold it slightly, or to “ba bei han xiong”, one of the ten fundamental principles according to Yang Cheng Fu, or to “pluck back and hollow chest”. “He” is to tuck in the tailbone, “Kai is to release, straighten it or untuck it. In the open-close principle, the whole body should, as I said earlier, work as a belch, the whole body constantly contracts and expand, from the legs through the whole spine. The arms help to balance and connect the whole structure. From a neidan perspective or from the POV of circulating qi, “Kai” is like turning on a water tap, and “he” is connecting the hose. Then you can control direction and strength of the water flow. This is similar for tai chi. You must first open up the structure before connecting it. When you connect it you have circulation.
In Tai Chi, as I already have stated, “Kai/He’ should be present in every movement. But how often do you hear an explanation how “Kai/He” is used for ba jin/ 8 “energies”? If you have already read a whole lot of texts about Tai Chi you will know that the answer is never. Absolutely no one explain this.
All of the 8 jins or energies are aspects of either Kai or He body movements. As techniques, they are eight different ways to use either open or close aspects for combat. What is the point of arranging techniques or fighting methods in either Kai or he? This has nothing to do with theory or philosophy. In fact, there’s a very commonsensical practicality behind this construction. If you consider each and one of the eight jins as either an open or close aspect, you can understand that they function very clever together. One of the eight jin is used to store energy for another jin. When you pull or twist your body, the next movement will flow easy and natural into the other. If you consider the jins as different aspects of certain body movement as you use them in real situations, the energies will flow into each other continuously without gaps or breaks. Your movements will become lively, you will move smooth and find it easy to change swiftly between movements.
The jins are considered first and secondary movements. The first four are the most important and three of them belong to “close”, or ”he” aspects. The four secondary, or corner movements have three “open” or “kai” type of movements.
Peng is often called ward-off and Pengjin ward-off energy. As a quality, energy or jin, Peng is a consequence of achieving a very relaxed and balanced Tai Chi body. Peng is what naturally hold up the structure. As a technique or a movement, there should be no resistance. An offensive attack, a push or strike, happens in the change from another movement, as lü, into peng. You can store movement or energy with lü and release it with peng. Adding this principle for any kind of attack enhances the power released.
Lü belongs to “open” movements or “Kai”. It is used mostly in defensive movements. to evade, parry, It’s like opening up a door as someone tries to run into it. When people quote the famous saying “to lead into emptiness,” they mostly think about lu. The centerline of the body acts as the middle of a wheel. The body turns around it. The attacking part of the opponent attaches to you as that point was the outer part of the wheel.
Ji or “press” is a force coming straight out from the center of the body. In the form, the common movement that is labelled ji has one hand supported by the other, often seen as an attack with the wrist of the back. But the visual appearance of the most common versions is a bit deceiving. You can use one single hand and you can use any part of the hand to strike with. A straight lead/a straight jab belong to ji types of attacks.
An means push and is often translated as “push down”. Some people says that an is the two hand push, others say that an is the downward movement after the push, or that the push begins upwards and then continue downwards. If you look at different videos and clips on YouTube, you will see that this jin has a various explanations. I have already stated that I believe that each jin is in fact a different way of body use. I don’t believe that any one of them has to do with directions except in the form as examples. It is possible that this jin has got it’s name from a certain downwards movement in the form. I appreciate the explanation of relaxing downwards, and there is indeed truth to that it’s function has to do with relaxing into the movement. But the jin itself is not a direction. An is using a close, or he, movement with both hands together as you move your spine and back as in a basic han xiong ba bei manner, or raise back hollow chest. An is using this movement to attack with. It can be done forwards, upwards or down. It’s the movement of the trunk that determines if it’s an or not.
If lü is the opposite of peng, than Lie, or split is the opposite to an. An represents using a complete close posture and lie means to open up the body. It’s Kai, or open, using both arms. The common appreciation of the name is that splitting means to do two things at the same time, as pulling two limbs in different directions. But in my opinion, the name is not derived from any the application, but instead it represents the feeling of the movement, like tearing a book apart. In the form, the “single whip” posture and “separate horse’s mane” are both wide, kai movements and thus they represent lie.
Cai is called a downwards grab or jerk and this is how most of people appreciate the movement, like a sudden grab or like jerking of an apple from a tree. If this were true, then why would it be called a jin? A jerk is not a skill that needs to be practiced to developed. In fact, cai is a “Kai” type of movement that is mostly used after that an arm is deflected away with lü. Cai is a very small, subtle and completely effortless move that is aimed so to abruptly lead off his balance. He will not hardly feel your cai, but the downward movement will make him feel as he drops suddenly into a gap or a whole. This is the most common traditional use of cai, but it can also be used together with a hooking movement to pull the opponent towards the Tai Chi practitioner. As cai is a single side Kai, or ”open” type of movement, it is popular to use in conjunction with ji, to store jin in order to use it for a strike.
“Cai is where our opponent loses control of his centre of gravity, and we use a technique to disrupt his balance to such an extent that he is uprooted completely from his position. It is something like a strategically placed lever lifting a heavy rock.”
– Principles of the 13 Tactics
Zhou means elbow. Zhou is mostly using the elbow or upper arm. But the technique or use does not mean any kind of elbow attack. In fact, Zhou is an aspect of Kai. The arm and elbow strikes as it is stretched into the opponent.
Kao is often translated into English as shoulder or shoulder stroke. But the meaning is to lean. In Chinese, if I say that I “kao” you, it means that I lean against you or that I position myself really close to you. Kao is to use the shoulder or the side of the body, to unbalance or strike the opponent. Kao is mostly considered to be an aspect of close, or “he”.
Martial arts are generally divided into striking and throwing arts. Most martial arts have both strikes, kicks and throws, but they usually focus more on one aspect than on the other. And the general strategy, as well as the finishing strategy, usually belong more to one of them than to the other.
For some martial arts, it depends much on what sub-style or lineage a school belong. This relationship is very clear if look at branches of a “sister art” of Tai Chi as Baguazhang for instance. Cheng style is mainly a throwing art as Cheng Tinghua background was mainly wrestling. But Yin style Baguazhang has a very different visual appearance. The founder Yin Fu had his background in Shaolin, so punches and kicks are much more prevalent.
Tai Chi is a bit more complicated. There’s a style called Chang style that is a mix of Chinese wrestling and tai chi and sometimes it’s called Shuaijiao Taijiquan. Many schools that compete in push hands, Chen schools especially, have developed their Tai Chi into more or less pure art of wrestling. So some teachers say that Tai Chi is a wrestling art. Others say that their art is a striking art. They all have a different view and seem to be very convinced. So what is Tai Chi? What is true?
Personally, I would rather say that Tai Chi is neither one or the other. I would rather call Tai Chi an art of self-study, or a “combined anti-wrestling and striking art”. I would say “anti-wrestling” because it has not wrestling in a Western sense. Tai Chi has a lot of defence from wrestling and defence from throws. The aim though is not to wrestle with the opponent, but to take the opponent down to the ground while staying upright. Tai Chi has a clear origin from warfare and from the battle field. Wrestling is never a solution on the battle field. With a lot of people on a small space, while everyone are running around everywhere, and maybe with horses and other animals around, going to the ground is mostly the same to secure your own death. What you need is to learn how to stay up and especially when others try to drag you to the ground. From this point of view, Tai Chi is not a wrestling art. It’s not a traditional throwing art either, because you never sacrifice your own balance and follow the opponent down to the floor. This is something you can do in sports on a mat. Some people says that the lack of ground fighting is a flaw in the art. I say it’s not. The thinking of not going down, not to be dragged or wrestled down is very strong in Tai Chi, which I see as a strength. And again, if there are enemies everywhere, going to the ground is the last thing you want to do. We can say that when Tai Chi is turned into sport, instead of focusing on real life combat situations, then there is a tendency to turn it into wrestling. Most of the teachers that speak about Tai Chi as a wrestling art or a throwing art see Tai Chi as a sport and acknowledge Tai Chi as sports competition.
But still, I am not really inclined to say that Tai chi is either this or that. This art is in fact a bit more complicated. Or maybe just different. I would think that you would need to be a bit acquainted to traditional Chinese thinking in order to really understand what Tai Chi is. I can not explain this in depth in a blog post, but I can maybe give you a basic idea of what it’s about. Take Chinese Characters for instance. They are not “words”, instead they are symbols of a basic idea and they can mean many different things depending on how they are used. The same character or combination of characters can be a noun, a verb, an adverb and many things more. What the meaning of a character is depends. The meaning of a character is situational, the Chinese language is situational. If you look at the individual movements and postures that a Tai Chi form consists of, you can interpret them in the same manner as a Chinese Character. A movement or a posture in Tai Chi can be an attack or a defence, it can be used as a throw, a take-down, as qinna or as a strike. What the art of T’ai Chi Ch’uan really is depends on how you use the movements and what you do depends on what your opponent does. Tai Chi is a situational art. One meaning of the original philosophical term Tai Chi is “potential”. What T’ai Chi Ch’uan is depends on your teacher and on yourself. It depends on what you are good at, what strategies you like most and on your personality. If Tai Chi is a striking art or a wrestling or a throwing art depends on you, and only on you.