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.