Throw Away the Qi

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What happens to your Tai Chi Chuan if your main interest has to do with exploring Qi and learn how to make use of it? Will it enhance your Tai Chi? Maybe your whole study of this art just an excuse to learn about this mystical intrinsic energy?

First, before dwelling into the realm of “qi”, I can tell you that I got the idea for this post as I was pondering about what kind of Martial Art Tai Chi actually is, and how I disagree with most, or rather all, definitions. Some people used it mostly as a striking art while others claim that Tai Chi is basically standing grappling, or that Tai Chi is 80% grappling.

People who practice Tai Chi use and focus very different things, so all of those statements might have their own validity. And yet I believe that they all miss the mark. Tai Chi is not about techniques or about any type of fixed ideas of how you should approach fighting in terms of punches, kicks, throws etc.

Those methods are all important, but still, Tai Chi in its core is about something else. As a fighting art, Tai Chi is about sensitivity, angles, distance, leverage, and about how to use your own body as efficiently as possible. It’s about how you relate your own body to the opponent’s body and how you use your own balance and structure to dominate your opponent’s balance and structure.

To sum it up, the art of Tai Chi Chuan is about relationships. Tai Chi is about how you relate to yourself and how you relate to and reflect yourself in others. And all of the methods in tai chi have to do with specific, detailed principles of relating and adapting.

In a practical sense, the basic ideas in Tai Chi Chuan as a Martial art are rather simple. Regardless of what you call them, they are all about basic mechanics and science. But they are also about developing self-knowledge, body awareness and sensitivity. When you base your “external knowledge”, as simple mechanics and basic science, on “internal knowledge”, as understanding yourself better, and how your own body and balance works in motion, you will be able to work with principles as timing, leverage and angles, in a more exact, precise and subtle manner.

It is said that the key to develop skill in any kind of art, or in Arts in general, lies in how well you understand and handle details. To develop skills in Tai Chi Chuan as well, you need to practice in a very detailed manner. When you practice Tai Chi, you need to work with balance, alignment, angles, distances, in an exact and precise manner. Understanding “detail”, and work with details, is what separate the amateur from the master in any kind of art.

Just look at painters and musicians who play or paint spontaneously and effortlessly. How much skill have they developed by training slowly, step by step and by always caring for every little detail? It is the same in Tai Chi and in all martial arts. If you want to reach a point where you can use your Tai Chi Chuan unrehearsed, with spontaneity and liveliness, you need to have a meticulously detailed approach in your practice.

So let’s head back to the issue about the Holy Qi: There’s nothing wrong with terms as “Qi”, “yi”, “jin” in general, and I use them sporadically when questions about them arise, and I try to explain what they mean in a most practical sense. But the problem when you focus on, or think too much about them, is that you will focus your whole practice on the wrong things.

Standing comfortable and “feel harmony” will not lead you one little step further towards developing skill or towards mastery. “Trying to feel qi” doesn’t help you to feel and understand your physical balance or how to balance your centreline.

You need to understand that all those terms, as “qi”, “jin” and “yi”, represent an old, culture specific way of describing the world, a way that is very different from how modern Western languages are used. They also belong to different old philosophical systems that you would need to dig really deep into, and study in detail, in order to understand them, how they are used and what they really mean.

You can trust me on this. I myself started to read Chinese philosophy and about Chinese history and culture in an early age. I have read more original texts about Daoist practice, Neidan and Chinese medicine than most people who speak about these terms. I speak Chinese and I have also went through academical studies in old, classical Chinese, which is in some respects very different from modern Chinese.

I understand the historical contexts of the terms mentioned, and I understand how they are used today in the modern Chinese language. But I can honestly say that intellectual understanding of these terms on a deeper level has not helped me in any way to improve or change my practical practice. However, it has helped me to have distance to them, and this has kept me from getting confused. No, I don’t like to make use of these and similar terms and find them unnecessary in our modern, Western world. We need to use our own language to analyse and understand what we do.

However, even if I say that I don’t particularly like to use these terms, or other similar terms, in my own study and teaching, this still doesn’t mean that I would want to, in any way diminish, minimise, or trivialise, any type of personal experience you might have had in your own practice. When we practice relaxed and calm while breathing deeply, and go deep into ourselves, we will certainly experience things that we usually don’t experience on an everyday basis.

We can become very warm, and in a longer term build up a skill, to easily and rapidly heat up our palms. And in our practice, we can feel things inside of our body that are new to us and can be hard to explain. But all those things don’t necessarily need an explanation that incorporate “qi” or any special kind of developed energy.

You can use “qi circulation” to describe a certain sensation you have had, and that is all fine if you use it for this sensation only, and don’t make up fantasies that it would be more special than it is. It is a sensation, and it’s your own sensation only. Let it stay that way, as a personal experience. You can call it whatever you want and you don’t need to speak to anyone else about it.

Regardless what you feel and experience, it’s still your own body. It’s still the same body as it was before. We might experience things because we are more aware about what is happening inside of ourselves. And when we practice Tai Chi Chuan, we obviously use it in a different way than we usually do in our everyday life. This is enough as an explanation. In an old Chinese way, if something work as good as possible, one could say that it has “Qi”. But that doesn’t mean that something new has been added into the equation. And it doesn’t mean that we need to address it using a terminology that was used centuries ago.

There might also be results when we practice and interact with other people, that doesn’t really look like things usually look like in most, or at least many, other martial arts. But these things mostly have to do with a subtle use of those things I mentioned earlier, as an exact, precise use of balance and alignment, or to do with how to unbalance and set a physical body in motion. We really don’t need to think about “Qi” when we study how to unbalance and make use of a body’s balance. And we don’t need to use “Qi” to interpret things we see others do just because we don’t understand the mechanics behind them.

You really need to free yourself from all those things that you feel are “blurry”, words that you don’t understand, or even make you worry. If you focus on the wrong things, you will only halt and prolong your own progress. It’s better to use common, everyday words and terms, to describe and explain the things you experience in both solo- and partner practice. Instead of trying to “sense Qi”, focus on what you physically do, things as how you balance yourself while you physically interact with your training partner and the physical things that makes different methods work.

Do it in a detailed manner. Mind your posture, your balance, how you place your feet, how you open the kua, how you balance your head, and how you initiate your movements from the center of your body. When you stand or move, always stay centered, balanced and don’t forget to breath. And when you practice with others, mind all of the same things, but also, always mind the angle and distance to your partner, and control the amount of pressure you let your partner put on you.

All those, as well as many others things, that you can focus on in your practice, are all precise and exact, physical and hands-on. And also – it’s all about basics. Your progress in more advanced methods you could learn, they also rest on how well you have understood and can keep to the basics. And this also belongs to the same physical world everything else belong to.

Every good Tai Chi practitioner have gone through the same progress of learning the basics, understanding the basics, and integrating the basics, to the way they always move and apply their movements and methods. Regardless of how they verbalise their own art, we could still analyse everything they do to things that are basic and hands-on.

We don’t need to understand “Qi” or “think” about Qi to reach the same level as any of them. We don’t need to ever have heard about “Qi” to practice Tai Chi Chuan correctly and progress within this art. I would even suggest that if you can really throw away all of those words, you could become even better and progress more rapidly than anyone you ever see demonstrate Tai Chi in real life or on YouTube, who also uses the word “Qi”. Why? Because, unlike them, you would be able to stay completely “real” and would not be confused about what is important to progress in Tai Chi.

Internal External Merge Together – 內外相合

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內外相合 – Nei Wai Xiang He, or “The Internal and External Merge Together” is a good old Tai Chi saying. It’s one of those less common proverbs that has been more or less forgotten. There are far more popular ones and there might be a “Western” reason for why this one is less popular. But before dwelling too deeply into the minds of West and East, let’s first dissect the proverb a bit.

Understanding the proverb

Nei means internal, Wai means external. Those two characters are the same as used in “internal” versus “external” martial arts, as in “neijiaquan” or the internal family, or school, of pugilism. The characters are also the same used for “external” and “internal” medicine, or Waidan and Neidan. Waidan was understood as medicine taken from outside as pills. Neidan, or “internal elixir” became known as a term on a certain type of Daoist exercise and a whole philosophy.

“相合”, “xiānɡhé” is a word or expression meaning “to fit”, “come together”, “interact with”, “harmonise with” “coincide with” or “coincidence” and can also be translated to “congruent” in English. As Chinese is a contextual language, the exact meaning depends on how it is used in what situation.

The proverb 內外相合 is mentioned in Yang Cheng Fu’s ghost written Tai Chi book “太極拳使用法” or “Methods of Applying Tai Chi Boxing“. The translation of 相合, Xiang he, as “merge together” is something I borrowed from Brennan’s free, non-profit translation of the same work. His whole translation of the proverb “Nei wai xianghe” is “Inside and outside merge together”. However I would argue that “Internal” and “external” is more logical in this Tai Chi context, but still, I do agree with his translation of “xianghe” as “merge”.

In older Chinese texts, when something is said to be together as one, or to “be one“, usually the characters “he yi”, 合一, is used. For instance, the Neo-confucianist philosopher Wang Yangming of the Ming Dynasty “School of Mind” created his own proverb, that says that knowledge and action are together as one inseparable unit, or: “Knowing and Doing are One”, zhi xing he yi, 知行合一. Here “He yi” means that they are connected as one, but the two characters could also be translated as “harmonizing together” or “melt together” and similar depending on the context.

I believe that the characters “xiang” and “he”, or here translated as “merge” should be used in the same way as “he yi”. In Tai Chi, Nei Wai Xianghe, means that the internal and external cannot be separated, or that they must be used together. They must be used in a unison, as a whole. But how? And what consequences does this have in a practical sense?  

What to merge?

In old Chinese tradition, there are no real boundaries or limits from where the “internal” starts, and there is no exact definition of what is “external” compared to internal. This also depends on context. This can be a bit hard for westerners to understand, but there is no real definition of what is what, as they cannot be separated and must be used together.

In one of his books, Sun Lutang, who is often mistaken for creating the dichotomy between “internal” and “external”, said that martial arts styles are not actually internal or external, but that only “Qi” can be internal or external. (I’ve written more about this here)

But here is a problem of language. In the paragraph where this view is stated by Sun Lutang, some translators of this paragraph use “Qi” as it is, and others translate “qi” as breath. But, and as not many know, “Qi” can also be translated as “movement”. So exactly what did Sun Lutang mean by “Qi”? In his Bagua book, Sun Lutang says that most people use “post-heavenly qi”, but you must learn to use “pre-heavenly qi” ( I explain what pre-heavenly principle means in this post).

My teacher meant that “post”- and “pre-heavenly” movement should be the correct expression. He used this expression, “pre-heavenly movements” about building up a certain type spontaneous movements, and about letting the body work as much as possible by itself and to understand what the body “wants”. (If you want to learn more about this concept, you can read about it here.)

“Movement” is also a better word to use in order to describe what Sun Lutang really meant when he says that only “Qi” can be either external or internal. Looking at any definition of the “Qi” as energy, then Qi is just Qi, it can not be external. So he cannot have meant that energy “Qi” can be either external or internal. And breath is also neither internal or external, it can only be higher or lower, shallow or deep, but it cannot be internal or external.

However, both Qi and breath can be used in an internal or external manner. Using qi or breath in the internal arts means that we use it by stimulating it or circulate it by moving. However, just to complicate it yet a bit further, there can be several things that could be regarded as movements, internally and externally, as physical movements and breath.

So when we think about internal versus external, or when we try to understand what to merge together, we should consider all internal and external aspects. Mind, heart and breath might be considered as internal, outer form and physical appearance should be. All difference aspects and both external and internal movements are important. So if a martial art merge together “external” and “internal” it means that no art could be considered completely “internal” or “external”. But the focus in practice can be different between styles.

When theory leads to separation

Here in the West, many define “internal” as “mind”. Sun Lutang didn’t even mention “mind” when he discussed a definition of “internal”, but still, many here in the West would say that it’s the use of “mind” is what is internal. Sometimes maybe they do this because they regard everything physical as “external”. 

But just by assuming this, they have made a basic error. They have already separated what they believe is internal from what they define as external, and I believe that this type of mind-set is wrong. Many interprete the saying: “Yi leads the qi, the qi leads the body” as that the mind must teach the body to follow the order of the mind or thought.

Some people do this by trying to “think ahead” of their movements and try to let the body to follow their “yi”, or “intent”. In my opinion, this is also wrong. By doing this you have already separated what you believe is internal and external. There is no need to practice your mind or intent in any special way. Instead you must use everything you believe is internal and external together as they are one. 

Hence, they separate the mind from the body in a way that was never intended. The mind and body should move together, not separately. You can’t really find a harmonious equality between outer and inner if one must be taught to lead the other.

In Chinese tradition, body and mind are always connected. Your thinking will always have an impact on emotion, and emotion will always impact the thinking. Thinking and emotion will always have an impact on the breath. And if you cannot control and your mind or breath, your “Qi” won’t sink down to the lower Dantian. And if Qi cannot sink down to the Dantian, the qi cannot circulate and Essence cannot be refined.

In Chinese tradition, you cannot practice one aspect by separating it from the other. In fact, the saying “Yi leads the Qi, the Qi leads the body” is just a way to describe how the mind and body works naturally. You cannot force it and it’s not necessary to train this type of relationship further.

The Mind – not over – but together with matter

However, you can use your yi, or mind, to “merge the internal and external together”. But this doesn’t mean that the mind forces any type of control over the body.

First, I would rather speak about a “mind-state” than about “yi” or just “mind”. The correct state of mind in Tai Chi is anything else than a controlling or forcing type of mind. Instead, it’s a relaxed, calm and an “empty” state of mind where no logical thinking, worrying or anxiety belong or can interfere. Both the mind and heart are calm and still.

If you use the name “Wuxin” (No heart-mind) or “Wuji” (non-differentiated) to describe or name this mind-state doesn’t matter. It will be a most tangible feeling of emptiness together with a strong sense of awareness regardless what you call it. It’s not a sleepy, drowsy kind of calmness. It’s empty from though and emotion, calm and relaxed. But from this, you will also sense a razor sharp awareness where you experience that you can see everything

You need to learn how to understand this mind-state by your own experience. But later when you have got used to this feeling and get to know it better, you can learn how to tap into this mind-state instantaneously and by will.

When you practice this mind-set, you should not only let your mind relax, but also let your whole body relax and let the strength sink down to the feet and let your breath become deep and full. Everything in this whole process must work together and as a whole.

But if you find this mind-set and practice it, just the mind-set alone will make everything come together naturally, everything internal and external will fall into place automatically without you having to do anything special.

I am not speaking about theory or anything intellectual. This is not something you should “think”, but something you need to learn how to do. It will become something direct and instantaneous. Merely the thought or intent to relax either the mind or the body will trigger the whole process, everything together.

Still, there is no need to rush anything. Trying to force something that needs to be part of a larger progress will lead to mistakes. If you try to hard or too early, you might fool yourself that you have accomplish something that you still have not. When you have achieved this stage, you will now. I don’t believe that you have to rush, it is better to leran Tai Chi step by step. And you will have a long journey ahead of you. If you haven’t read my outlining of a learning process of body mechanics in Tai Chi, you should do this as well.

If you are a beginner, you need to remember that you will have to learn the form, get accustomed by a certain way of moving and use your own balance, before you should even consider “merging internal and external” on a deeper level. However, practicing on how to coordinate everything you have learned yet, together as a whole, is a good start and something worth to always keep in mind.

From Doing to Being

However, when you have gone through all of the learning stages, there is one clear separation you need to make. There will come a time when you need to separate yourself from the beginners mind-set and start to practice your art in a new way. You need to practice your art as someone who knows Tai Chi instead of learning it. 

For all of us, it is all to easy to get stuck in all our flaws and mistakes. We often practice our art in a segmented, detailed manner. Many of us will focus on something special while practicing our forms. One day one as we practice our forms and drills, we might focus on keeping the head erect and straight, and let the head follow the body. And another day we might focus a little bit more on moving from the Dantian. And sometimes we might to correct our stepping and control the knee alignment. And of course, there are other things as learning how to store and release movements, and things as opening the kua. Yes, there are indeed many aspects we can go through again and again and come back to.

But here is the thing. As soon as we try to do something more or extra with a certain part of our body, we have gone back to a beginners stage, a stage where we separate both the mind from the body, and the the body itself to different parts. This type of practice is very good for beginners and intermediate practitioners, but on a later stage, it could be a good way to practice occasionally only.

When you have reached a point when you feel that you do most of the details right, and you feel comfortable in that you understand and can use the shenfa, or “Tai Chi body method”, you need to progress further. Instead of looking at details and flaws, only the mind-state, or the whole mind-body state, should be of concern. When the time is right, instead of just “doing”, you will reach the state of “being”.

As you focus on, and tap into, the correct mind and body state, everything you have learned so far will come together naturally and everything fall into place by itself. Now, you have reached the state where you don’t need to focus on any kind of detail, looking for mistakes or make sure that you do everything correct. Instead just “being” is enough for the mind and body to make every piece fall into the correct place. The body, breath, mind – everything will correct itself by itself, just by the state of “being”.

It might be hard to understand this, that you won’t need “to do” anything specific any longer, or to understand how everything can arrange itself correctly by itself. It will be hard to understand anything of this if you haven’t experienced this already. Why so few speak about these things, and so few try to explain them, can give you a hint about how hard it is to reach this stage and how few of all those “masters” who writes Tai Chi books have reached it. However, when you understand these things by your own personal experience, you can also claim that you now understand the deeper meaning of – Nei Wai Xiang He – How the Internal and External merge together.

More on Cross-Training & Tai Chi: Don’t Mix Styles but Practice What Your Body Needs

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I have already written down my thoughts about cross-training and combining different styles in Tai Chi Chuan. One of my conclusions was that you need to be a bit careful and make sure that that the different things you practice compliment each other instead of obstructing each other.

But there are also other reasons to practice different styles and for cross-training that I didn’t address there. And this isn’t really limited to other martial arts styles, but to different kinds of practice and body movement in general. You see, exploring different ways of using your body is mostly good and there are very few exceptions when it’s not.

There are so many ways you can explore your own body movement. You really don’t need to practice different martial arts styles to do this. Many Tai Chi Chuan practitioners try Yoga, meditation, and of course different types of Qigong comes close to what we do in Tai Chi. Different forms of dance and other types of body movement arts are good in order to reach a better understanding of your own body. A better understand of your body always means better body awareness which is something that can greatly enhance and deepen your tai chi practice.

You will find similar principles used in Tai Chi body movement also in fine arts, as in Chinese calligraphy and painting, ceramics and in different types of music and handicraft. Many Tai Chi practitioners practice things as juggling, learning balance tricks and magic with cards and coins. Many sports where you coordinate different tools and objects are great to learn from. The first sports I myself come to think about are Bowling and Pool games, sports where you coordinate an object in very specific ways.

From all of these things you can better understand different ways of coordinating your own body, different ways of using hand movement, using leverage handling tools etc. etc. Some things that you can practice and combine with your tai chi with, will deepen your understanding of your own body, so it will enhance your solo practice. Other forms of training that teaches you how to use tools in different ways, can help you to better understand things as angles and leverage for push hands and applications training.

You might not believe that you need something “extra” or that your own body movement is limited in different ways. But the truth is that we are all limited in different ways, and that it is very hard to look at ourselves from the outside. Sometimes, teachers try to tell us things and correct what we do. But still many people have a hard time to listen and accept what a teacher or others tell them. We do have a hard time to understand where we lack or need improvement. Often, we just don’t want to accept them.

Teachers are good, preferably teachers who are very tough and not afraid to tell you right in your face that you suck, and in details explain why. But still better is often to understand by trial and error. Here we can learn from ourselves without having the ego standing between us and a teacher. This is why trying different body methods and developing different body skills is good. Your own body will not lie or try to be kind to you.

I remember when I was about 19 years old. It was in the last year in high school and I participated in a theatre class. We had a weekend course, I don’t know the english name, but it was an old physical theatre and comedy tradition with an origin from medieval times. We did things as acrobatics and juggling.

I really thought that I would be the best to learn juggling fastest in the group. After all, I had already studied Tai Chi for a long time, many years. And Tai Chi body movement is based on coordination skills. Oh, so wrong I was. In fact, I was the worst and had most trouble in the whole group learning it. Why? How was this possible? I just couldn’t separate my arm movements from my feet, hip and waist. When I throw up the balls, I would use whole body movement. My waist and hip turned, so that the juggling balls would go too far to the left and to the right, making it very hard to catch them.

I tried many times, I sucked. And it took a long time for me to understand what I did wrong. Moving with my whole body together was the most natural way to move. But now I found that I had even lost the ability to separate my arm movements from the rest of the body!

There are many ways to understand your own limitations and to learn better what you need to improve. One of the best ways is to find types of body movement which are completely opposite to how you are used to move your body. You can practice things you know that you are bad at. But still, where you don’t know you lack, it might be very hard to realise the limitation. If you have never seen the color red, you would not know that it exists.

If you don’t know about a limitation, you don’t know that it exists. So to test different types of exercises, and ways to use your body to come to a better understanding of your own limitations, often needs an approach with a certain kind of randomness. So learning and testing different things with an open mind randomly, just because “you can”, is a very good approach.

The things you explore can either be larger sets of exercises, or isolated skill sets for specific body parts. It doesn’t matter much what you practice as long as you learn and study your body in a way you feel rewarding. And here comes the part of cross-training, or practicing different martial arts styles.

You don’t need to become good in different styles, or learn much from them at all. But you can take out different things from different arts, exercises, sets, methods, and treat those things just the way you would treat an isolated skill set as juggling, or any other isolated skill sets for a specific type of body movement.

When I was about 20 – 22 years old, I had the opportunity to try another Chinese Internal Martial Art – Baguazhang. This was a Cheng style variation and I liked this art very much. I had already practiced Tai Chi for more than ten years, mostly Yang style, and Baguazhang taught me another type of body movement. A smoother, more lively type of moving.

The body coordination was different, and the overall body posture as well. My Tai Chi training had taught me a type of balanced straight body posture with a straight spine. But the Bagua emphasised the body’s natural curvature. it represented a more lively and in some respects more natural and unrestricted way to move. The whole practice was beneficial to may Tai Chi and I progressed further in my Tai Chi after studying Bagua.

I tried and studied a few more different Bagua Styles after Cheng style and later also Xingyi. I don’t do these styles any longer for different reasons. I might write more about these experiences later. Tai Chi has always been my main focus and I believe it’s better to focus on one art if you want to become really good in something.

You can think about different martial arts as different ways of using the body, in a way similar to playing different instruments. I’ve heard about master musicians in either piano, violin and other instruments. But I have never heard about one of those top musicians being able to handle two or three different instruments the same way and become just as good in all of them.

There’s something similar in the Martial Arts. Don’t believe that you can become equally good and reach a high level in two or three different martial arts styles. Many people combine Tai Chi with Bagua, Xingyi (excuse me for mixing different methods of romanisation) or even Wing Chun. Some people believe that it’s good to practice all of the three internal “sister arts”, or Tai Chi, Bagua and Xingyi all together.

But there is always one style that will take over and color the others. Some do their bagua and xingyi as they were tai chi. Some people do tai chi as it was bagua or wing chun. Or even as Karate. They will never tap into the real essence of more than one style. And sometimes, they will never understand the real flavour of any of the arts they practice. Each and everyone of their styles will, in the best cases, be something “in between” all of the styles they practice.

Again, there is nothing wrong in practicing different arts or cross-train in some periods of your life. But you still need a certain focus and know what types of skill sets you want to develop and what types of body movement that you want to develop. So, in my own humble opinion, it’s better to treat other styles as different isolated ways to test your own body knowledge. Maybe you can find some things, exercises or methods, that you can use to train your own body, so it will enhance your body movement. Those things can teach you to use your body better in many different ways regardless what your goal is.

So: Find every way to explore your own weaknesses, but don’t lose your focus.

Tai Chi Chuan 5 Steps Explained

The 8 gates is something I have written about before and consists of peng, lu, ji, an, lie, zai, zhou, kou. You can read more about the Tai Chi 8 energies or gates here. In the Tai Chi classics it is said that the Eight Gates (or energies/Jins) together with the Five Directions make up the “13 postures. “

The 13 postures, or “shisanshi” is also an older name of Tai Chi Chuan itself. However, the five steps are not postures or techniques. So in my own opinion, it would be better here to translate the 13 postures to “the 13 principles”. And in fact, not even the 8 gates or “jins” are anything near fixed methods, but rather general ideas and principles that can be applied as methods or together with specific techniques.

The 5 steps in Tai Chi Chuan

The five steps are: 進步 (Jìnbù)、退步 (tuìbù)、左顧 (zuǒ gù)、右盼 (yòu pàn)、中定(zhōng dìng). Or in english they are: “Advance”, “retreat”, “look to the right”, “gaze to the left” and “central equilibrium”. In the Tai Chi Classics it says that “the 5 steps correspond to the the five elements: Metal, Wood, Water, Fire, and Earth.”

In Chinese tradition, directions in general are mostly referred to the geographical directions North, South, East and West, and the fifth “direction”, which is the Middle, or Zhong. So it is clear that the 5 steps corresponds to traditional way of dealing with 5 directions. In Chinese tradition, the 5 directions, even if the geographical names are used, are often meant as subjective directions which means that they are often not absolute to the geographical directions, but instead relative to your own, or an object’s placement in space.

So when you look at old maps, buildings or constructional drawings “North” does not always represent the geographical direction, but often just means forward, the point to where something is directed towards. This can be seen on old military maps as well as in more modern manuals on taolu (form) and qigong type of exercises. Here, the directions traditionally means where the individuals are heading and the space around them.

If you would interpret north as actually the North and south as the actual South, in such a manual, the directions you use would be wrong. You would get a wrong appreciation of how you move in space. And this is the reason why people believe that you should start your form or qigong practice facing in a certain direction. This mostly have to do with a mistake coming from the wrong understanding that the directions would actually correspond with the real, geographical directions.

Doing this kind of mistake is very much removed in Tai Chi Chuan by calling the directions “steps” and naming the 5 steps “forward”, “back”, “left”, etc instead of the geographical directions. But as Tai Chi theory as represented in the Tai Chi classics, is very much derived from older thought as military strategy, you can still learn a lot about the five steps by getting to know how directions were understood in Chinese traditional thought.

So what is in the middle?

So let’s take a look at the center, the “zhong” of the Chinese 5 directions represented by “earth”. In Tai Chi Chuan, the center is called “zhongding”, but as a traditional direction, the middle is just called “zhong” or middle. Historically speaking, the Chinese are often accused for believing that their country is the centre of the world. After all, China is called “Zhonggou”, or “the Middle Kingdom”. Well, in fact “guo” just mean “country” and many different countries as England, France, Germany and America all have “guo” in their Chinese equivalent names.

In reality, the name of Zhongguo, or the “middle country” is just a consequence of the way that the Chinese traditionally look at directions as something subjective. The name “Zhongguo” actually just means the country where you are resining in for the moment or were you live. The other countries around your own country are “wai” or “waiguo” which means outside your own country. “Waiguoren”, by the way, is the common word for “foreigners” in Chinese.

But your own country, regardless you live in China, England France or in a country as Egypt, is your own “zhongguo”, your own “middle country”. Because it means the country where you are or where you live. This is the real and very simple explanation of the name “middle kingdom”, which we have translated to “China”.

Central Equilibrium explained

However in Tai Chi, the centre is called “Zhongding” and not only “zhong”, or “middle”. In Tai Chi Chuan “zhongding” is mostly translated to “central equilibrium”. These two characters together, “zhong” and “ding” means centralisation and it has the notion of “calmness”. It means that something is still or perfectly in place in one spot. The word with those two characters “zhong” and “ding” together has the connotation of “fitting in” and that other things are organised around a center.

Zhongding is an old expression, but we can find this constellation of the same two characters in the modern language as well. In the modern Chinese language we can find “zhongding” in various fields as in chemistry as “中定剂”, a translation of the English “centralite.” In an older, traditional expression we can find it in “姻缘命中定”, or “marriage comes by destiny”.

“Zhongding” means the place where you are centered in space, and that you are centered in one spot. However, the zhongding also determines all of your own directions. If you go back and forth or move to the left, you are still organising your directions in the same manner, or in keeping the same directions. Your own forward is still your forward.

How to make use of zhongding

However, if you turn around your own centre line, facing another direction, thus establishing new directions, you have made use of “zhongding”. You have “ding”, or centered yourself so that your “zhong” or center faces a new direction.

So zhongding means where you are in space, and how your directions are organised. But using zhongding means to move in space so that you establish a new set of directions. If you are heading one opponent in front of you and one to the left, and first take care of the opponent in front of you, and then turn your body facing the second opponent, you have moved and established a new center with new directions.

Just “gaze” to the left, but stay in place

However, if you only turn to the left with your body to deflect an incoming attack from the second opponent, or adjust your posture to the left in order to prepare to defend yourself from another attack, but still maintain your main posture and keep your feet in the same place facing your opponent forward, you have “gazed to the left.”

So “gazing left” and “looking right” means that you have made use of your left or right, or adjusted yourself in a predatory manner. But still, your main direction haven’t changed as you haven’t turned and moved around your central axis.

So this is the reason why the 5 steps doesn’t say just “left” and right”, but “look” and “gaze” together with the two directions. If you have been facing forward and move to the right so you now face the right side, thus establishing new directions to move within, this is not considered “look right”, and instead, this is considered using the “zhongding”, or establishing new directions.

Combining gates and steps

There are a few ways that the 13 Gates and 5 Steps can be combined. The first four “gates”, or peng, lü, ji, an, can be performed against an opponent without moving yourself physically in space. However, if you meet your opponent’s fist or attack with any of these four methods, as with peng or with lu, and you would want to follow up these movements with the secondary “Gates” or “jins”, as attacking with elbow or shoulder, you would need to move yourself in space.

There are other ways to use the 5 gates to organise your strategy against one or multiple opponents, but we will leave that for another time. In general, the 5 gates in combination of the 13 gates can help you in an intellectual way with things as how to organise your strategies, how to structure down different types of techniques, and how you deal with the space between you and your opponent. However, if you don’t like thinking too much or del with the theoretical, intellectual side of the art of Tai Chi Chuan, there is no real necessity to take up time and make too much effort thinking about the implications of the “13 Gates”.

It is always important to understand what you do and be clear about how to make most use of your opportunities in a real combat situation. And in Tai Chi Chuan the “13 principles” might be helpful to understand them better. However, a name is still just a name.

On Tai Chi Secrets and Indoor Practice

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Some people want to learn “secrets”, and look for secrets, but at the same time, they don’t want to put in the time and effort to develop any kind of skill. They are eager to “understand” secrets in a pure intellectual manner and would love to dissect them like how a curious spectator of a magic show tries to reveal the magicians and understand their technical devices. They want to “know” but mostly, they have very little wish to put in the work to develop any kind of impressive skill.

But first they must find the “secrets” in order to dissect them. Most people don’t know where to search and what to look for. Ironically, those who hunt for secrets are those who are most easy to cheat and pull money from. Some people are even willing to spend a lot of money to learn about “secrets” without having to practice anything at all. I would suspect that some of them are in for a disappointment, unless they buy it from a well known “Master” and can use that masters name to boast about his secret knowledge and use it to earn even more money.

But what secrets are there in Tai Chi Chuan? What is “Indoor practice” and what does a “disciple” learn that is different from a common student? Personally, I don’t really approve of “secrets”. But of course, if there are any secrets that I don’t know about, then I don’t know about them. Here I will not reveal anything that could be appreciated as a secret, but instead, I will try to summarise my own thoughts about secrecy in Tai Chi, and try to explain to you why I believe it’s wrong.

What is Indoor Practice in Tai Chi Chuan?

An indoor student is not the same as a disciple. Some teachers consider only their disciples as indoor students, so for them, it is about the same thing. Some people teach any advanced student advanced material or indoor practice. So an indoor student is not automatically a disciple. So what is indoor practice?

The answer to this question depends on who you ask. People who earn a living on their teaching and take disciples often like the concept of indoor practice. Here, it means that some type of material is only taught to a few chosen students. And who doesn’t want to be the chosen one?

If I chose to be a student of one of those very famous teachers who had built a big organisation and only show themselves in public in shiny silk pyjama, I might find the competition fun in order to chase a close position to the teacher, so I could stand close behind him in the next school photo with one hundred students crammed into the picture.

However, many traditional teachers who don’t care about if they can swim or sleep in piles of dollar bills, say that that “indoor” doesn’t mean any secrets at all. Are you feeling disappointed yet? I like how Sun Jianyun explained “indoor” practice. She is the daughter of Sun Lutang, the creator of Sun Style Tai Chi which is regarded as one of the big five Tai Chi styles.

Mrs Sun was very well known for her generosity. I have met a few people who studied for her. According to them, she never asked for anything and taught anyone who wanted. Her students often had to force gifts and things she needed on her, because she had an old Chinese type of relationship to her students and to her art.

What she said is that there are no secrets and that there is no practice that is hold for chosen students only. For her “inside the door” just meant students that stays for longer periods. Because if a person come and goes, you can only teach them rudimentary things. You need to stay with a teacher for a longer time and build a foundation of your art, otherwise you could not benefit from any type of more advanced teaching.

What is a Disciple in Tai Chi Chuan?

Being a disciple means that you are officially made a disciple. Far from every teacher believe in this type of endorsement. Often, there is a so called baishi ceremony which includes an official dinner where the teacher gathers together with his senior students and disciples. It’s often a big ceremony with a lots of people and lots of food. You, and maybe others who will become disciples at the same time, are the ones who will pay for the festivities.

The new relationship is formally written down and you’ll have this as a proof that you are a disciple. Nowadays, a disciple means that you have an obligation to your teachers. You have the obligation to teach what the teacher teaches and carry the lineage forward. You will also have earned your right to use the teacher’s name in your own school and to officially teach his branch of the art.

If you are a disciple to a highly famous teacher, you should not worry if the baishi ceremony costs a small fortune, because in return, there might be a lot of money for the greedy to make. To be a disciple sounds very good and special for the outsider, as you have become one of the chosen ones.

However, despite how special you might look in other people’s eyes, being a disciple does not always mean that you will learn any special knowledge, or anything considered “indoor” material. This really depends on what teacher you have. Reading an interview with Chen Zhenglei, one of the Chen village masters, I can see that he has at least two hundred close students all over the world. So despite not being able to continuously studying with a teacher, and sharing exactly the same knowledge with hundreds of other people all over the world, you can still be a “disciple”. This kind of relationship doesn’t seem very special, or what?

Why secrets protect themselves

I like the saying “secrets protect themselves”. It is a very similar to the christian expression “he who have ears to hear with and eyes to see” or “He who has ears, let him hear.” Those expressions are very true when it comes to more advanced Tai chi methods and teaching.

The reason for this is that you really need to have achieved a certain level and growth before you can understand things. Small children usually don’t understand irony or when adults are fooling them before they have reached a certain intellectual growth. And you need to train a very long time before you can achieve things as playing the violin effortlessly or do rope walking.

Take a look at different videos of older and maybe newer “masters” scattered all over the internet and easily found on YouTube and Facebook. You can see masters throw around with people, handling them just as easy and effortless as leaves in a storm. But what is going on? And can you see what is genuine skills or not?

A person who hasn’t learned the mechanics behind those methods shown obviously can not understand what is going on. Compare with watching a magic show. You always know that what you see is trickery, but mostly you don’t really know exact what mechanics lie behind those tricks. However, if you have studied professional illusionism you would easily see what is going on and what they do.

For the same reasons there is no need to worry about people stealing your stuff. If it’s truly genuine skills of higher level, you can show and speak about them how much you want. You can show things in detail and people would still not be able to reproduce what you can do. And soon, they will forget exactly what you have shown. The knowledge and the skills need to have become the property of the body, first then the “secrets” can reveal themselves.

This is why Master T.T. Liang named his book “Steal My Art.” He was teasing the reader, saying “go ahead, try to steal my art if you can”. Because he knew that only the worthy of his art would be able to catch it.

My teacher said: “Go and live in a tree if you want to keep your secrets to yourself.”

I myself wouldn’t claim that I know any secrets. However, I’ve had the great opportunity and privilege to study for a Chinese teacher who was born in a Martial Arts family. His family practiced mostly internal arts, focusing on both old “internal” Shaolin traditions and what could be called “Neijia” or “Tai Chi”.

Who he is or exactly what he taught is not important for this topic. But he had some real old knowledge and more skill than anyone I’ve met. His art was not magic, and he didn’t boast about his “qi”. But instead, his method was subtle and his movements precise.

What I liked with him (which ironically was completely opposite to the attitude of the person who invited him to teach us) was his generous and sensible approach, and attitude, towards “secrets”. He really didn’t believe in secrets and he would often show his dislike towards secrecy and mystification. He would often give examples of “Qigong” masters and their performance acts, and explain what they did so to reveal their “trickery”.

People who gave an illusion of knowing secrets, but wanted to keep it for themselves, was what he disliked most of all. Once, he said that if you don’t want to share your knowledge and keep it for yourself, you better move away to live alone, maybe on a mountain or in a tree. He himself wanted to be open with everything he had and he wanted his students to do the same.

He explained that the skills and knowledge there are to be found in the Chinese Martial arts have developed for a very long time, from generation to generation. Because of this, no one can be said to have the right to “own” the knowledge more than anyone else. No one owns this knowledge. Instead, he thought that it belongs to mankind, to all of humanity. And therefore it should all be openly shared.

And as he was looking back, he thought that secrecy had hurt further development of skills and knowledge more than it had helped. He recited a Chinese saying that every new generation must be better than the older one. He explained that traditional Chinese teachers only want their students to become better than they are. And they look upon their students as they have a duty to try to become even better.

This is the only way there will be a progress, every old generation need to help the younger generation to become even better. One time, when he spoke about these things, he showed sadness. He was annoyed and felt embarrassed because he thought that he had not been able to reach the level of his own teacher, thus he felt as he had let his teacher down.

Why sharing and generosity is important for your own personal growth

For your own sake, you should really share your “secrets” and advanced knowledge. This is the correct way to be selfish, because you will always gain from it yourself. It’s ok if you only want to share to a few, because if it’s genuine and advanced knowledge that you have learned, then you will probably have a hard time to find people who are committed to the art and willing to spend enough time to achieve the needed goals. But it’s very important that you teach and share what you have learned.

Why? The reason is simple. Every kind of practical knowledge needs to be tested and developed. If you only “know” things intellectually or have learned things, but don’t practice it, how can you keep on developing? Or even – how can you keep your skill?

But also, how do you even know that you have understood everything correctly if you don’t test you knowledge in some way? The best way to better understand what you yourself understand, is always by explaining, showing and teaching others.