Taichi Essentials for Beginners
Part II

by Rennie Chong


Three Steps for Training Yang Taiji

There are three steps for training Yang Taiji: First, training the body, next, training the breath, and finally, training the spirit. Strictly speaking, these three steps are inseparable. They emphasize building softness and obedience in the body, fullness of breath inside, and calmness in the nervous system. Benefits come through shifting from the external to the internal, from the substantial to the insubstantial, from movement to calm.

One should immediately work hard at posturing when Taiji movements are first learnt from a good teacher. Daily posturing, performed slowly, evenly, lightly and continuously should be done to achieve greater looseness and softness. Being slow is relatively easy and being even is relatively hard, but the careful learner is still able to pay attention to these two criteria. The two most neglected criteria are being light, (using little effort and strength), and being continuous, for we are accustomed to using strength in our daily lives. And even when we try, we skim over these 2 criteria roughly. That is why there is little progress and little appreciation of the art though we may have practiced many years. One should realize that lightness is the precursor of looseness and softness - without lightness there is no way to move toward looseness and softness - the soul of Taiji; and continuity, beginning from the center/central pulse/spine is the method by which each joint can be sequentially opened/unblocked. Thus lightness and continuity may be said to be the boat that carries you to the further shore.

Taiji heavily emphasizes the wholeness of the body. Therefore, the requirements that "all parts should move as one part begins to move"; "the upper and lower body should follow/echo each other" and "the inside and outside must be united" in the Taiji songs.

First, get the upper and lower body to echo each other when learning the stances. This does not only mean that when the arms move the legs also move, but rather that for every stance both arms and legs must begin to move at the same time and the movements must reach their final posture at the same time. Besides this, timing of arm and leg movements should also be matched by the rotation/turning of the waist, sinking of the breath, opening out of the groin and stepping out. This seems easy, but is actually difficult when one looks at it in detail.

If not taught properly, or if the learner has not been serious, it's often the case that the stepping out is accomplished first before the hands reach their final destination, or the groin is inadequately opened so that the upper and lower body cannot echo each other. If this continues, one will not be able to neutralize the force of others nor bring out his own force during push-hand, and martial skill cannot be achieved.

After learning the stances of the whole routine and the upper and lower body are able to echo each other, one must next pay attention to uniting what's inside and outside. The gist of this is to begin from the central line of the body, and use the mind to direct and move each joint sequentially so that the movements of the joints are chained continuously. When the movements are being brought in and force is being reserved/saved, the mind must also be brought inward to the smallest point; when the movements open outward and the breath is sunk to emit force, the mind must also open outward to the greatest extent. So thoughts of leading and moving the surrounding air to some distance must accompany movement of the arms, legs and body. 

Imagination is emphasized in the learning of Taiji. This seems abstract but there is a reason for this when spirit controls matter and long training in this will result in a unique kind of spiritual strength; Taiji is thus lifted from a skill to an art. Master Ya xuan's appearance in his stances is reserved and yet reveal unlimited potential; they are profoundly substantial and at the same time free. Watching his quan is actually a kind of artistic enjoyment, and the main reason is because his imagination has been manifested more richly and in more detail than others.

When the stances are gradually more familiar, the limbs and body are more soft, and when no effort is needed to remember the movements, the breath will naturally be lengthened and deepened because of the slow movements. As Master Yaxuan's Yang Taiji contains 115 stances, then accordingly within one routine, 115 deep breathing exercises have also been performed. This is Qigong.

Many think that Qigong is mysterious perhaps because of the influence of Gong fu Novels. But Qigong is in fact not mysterious. Qigong is just the art of breath training. Although Taiji is a martial art, it is practiced in a slow, elegant and civilized manner with long and deep breathing, so that it is at the same time it is naturally an art in breath training. In his later years, Master Yaxuan did not advocate forcibly matching breath to movement. The breath will naturally follow the movement just as water will naturally flow towards the lowlands.

Beginners have different rates of progress in training, different strengths and weaknesses in bodily makeup, and of course different rates of breathing. Trying hard to match breath to body movement is like carrying an extra burden, making the practice quite unnatural. Those who enjoy Push-Hand and research into the skill know that one naturally breathes in when reserving power and naturally breathes out when emitting force. When one reaches this stage, healing and strengthening will take place due to fullness of the internal breath, and constant exercise of the internal organs. At this stage, one should practice more Push-Hand and learn to listen to the force. A sense of happiness will ensue, and interest in quan practice will increase. Even in daily life one will know how to use Taiji principles.

The body is of course being trained as the breath is trained. Indeed, all achievement in the skill whether in the body, qi/breath, in spirit, these are all accomplished through basic posturing. Thus, though 3 steps in training may be identified, they cannot be clearly separated, and each has no limit. According to every man's understanding, imagination and focus, different achievement is possible in different/certain areas. That is why different schools exist due to the different strengths of the different masters. 

Training of the spirit is the highest level. At this stage, the body is already soft, the breath is already full; the focus is then on the cultivation of the spirit and serenity. There is minimal body effort and maximal accumulation of strength and health; the pursuit is turned toward the subtle changes in the art. Here, the person has become a master in the skill; in push-hand, he can neutralize your force or bring out his force without your being aware of it.

The three steps mentioned above constitutes what is said in the books, "from familiarity (with the stances) to understanding force, from understanding force to understanding the spirit". 


Difference between External and Internal Boxing

Beginners should know clearly what's the difference between Taiji and other kinds of martial arts. This is very important. Otherwise one takes the wrong path from the beginning. The differences between Taiji boxing and External boxing are listed in the table below:

External Boxing Taiji Boxing
Quick movements, unevenness in speed, uncontinuous Slow movements, continuous and even
Movements follow a straight line Movements are curved
Strength used is great Strength used is small
Breathing is uneven and hurried Breathing is even, long and deep. No breathlessness at end of training
Thoughts are on the target which is external Thoughts are on softening own body, on the dan tian, or on whole body; thoughts focus on the internal
Eyes aggressive, energy is apparent Serene appearance; energy is hidden
Mainly arm and leg movements The body is whole; when one part moves the whole body also moves
Apparent, external force; hard and discontinuous Hidden, internal force; soft and continuous
Mind is relatively one-sided and inclined to subjectivity Mind should be whole, relatively objective especially in push-hand
Chiefly emphasize strengthening of tendon, bone and skin Training in form, breath and spirit simultaneously emphasized; spirit being chief emphasis at later stage


There are other differences, but in comparison, one notices they are extreme opposites.

Those who do external boxing will go daily to the gardens to beat the tree trunks or lamp posts with their hands/arms in order to become "invincible". In time, the nerves on their hands become paralyzed and so they do achieve a unique ability to withstand pain. Some youngsters are even very proud of this, but I doubt very much whether this kind of training is good for the body/is scientific. According to some elders who have been trained in this kind of boxing, once training stops, the skill regresses. Therefore, it seems that to maintain proficiency, one must tolerate pain and suffer loss daily.

This is definitely not true for Taiji, nor is such self-flagellation part of its training. Indeed, it's through relaxing, softening the body, that Taiji skill and its consequent health benefits are achieved. And when one reaches a certain level, even if one stops practice, the skill will not regress. Master Zheng Manqing once said this: "In external boxing the body is sacrificed for the skill/art, while in internal boxing skill is practiced to develop the body and cultivate life." In the world of martial art, there's always this old saying "Internally, breath is trained; externally, the tendon, bone and skin are trained" -- clearly and simply differentiating internal and external boxing.

In the country, there are more than several hundred types of quan or boxing, but all can be separated into internal or external boxing; either inclining toward one or the other. External boxing has a hard force and is strong; the movements are aggressive and powerful, with highly difficult moves, bounces and jumps. Great to watch and well-loved by the young. 

Taijiquan, Baguazhang and Xingyiquan are among the most well-known internal boxing styles. All are inclined toward training of the breath, relaxing, softening the body and developing the force through the whole being, with health benefits being the most apparent. Many boxing masters learn both internal and external boxing when young, but on reaching middle age, many only train further in internal boxing. This is because all things which require effort uses up qi, and too much physical effort is required in external boxing. This is difficult for the older person, and not profitable for the cultivation of life. Therefore, most experienced teachers of external boxing will teach some kind of breathing exercises to substantiate the internal organs, compensate the loss of qi and strengthen the psyche. Thus, it's always been said " learn to fight without qigong, all is lost when one is old". However, learning qigong to strengthen the body (mainly done within the body) goes against the young person's inclination toward active movement and external pursuit, so they easily feel bored, and do not feel it's important. This is something which we should think about. 

Although internal boxing stress both the training of the body as well as cultivating the breath and spirit, yet when the skill becomes more profound, there is greater stress on cultivation and accumulation than on training and using. This is also more beneficial for the prevention of sickness and prolonging ones years. Comparison of Taiji and external boxing reveal that Taiji principles are higher, deeper and more fine; and because of this it's more difficult to learn and one cannot freely apply its principles given short training periods. Further, if one does not meet a good teacher, it's difficult to enter into its principles and achieve something. On the other hand, the principles of using effort for both external boxing and daily life are similar, so it's relatively easy for the learner to gain certain results (greater speed, greater strength) within a short period of time after training. Therefore, objectively, the Taiji learner cannot compete with the external boxer if he has not attained the level where he can freely apply the principles of Taiji. 

Those who seek quick results should learn external boxing; those who wish to study Taiji should first ask themselves if they have a determined will, and a fine and objective mindset. Further, they should know that three, five or more years of training is nothing in Taiji. Learning Taiji is lifelong learning. 


Number One in Quality 

Many who learn martial arts like to learn every kind of gong fu they meet up with, thinking that they are more able if they know more skill. Some masters especially feel that if they know external boxing, Taiji, Bagua, then they are ready with every good which can satisfy different kinds of consumers, like in a departmental store. This is not strange, but if this becomes a fashion, then even those who advocate Taiji may be influenced and become non-discriminating, feeling that it's okay to do taiji as well as other kinds of gong fu. Others cannot disagree if you as an individual simply prefer to focus on quantity rather than quality, but if this is the perspective that's generally taken to promote Taiji, then Taiji is in danger of moving toward a dead-end.

Even factories demand that quality goods be produced, knowing that inferior goods can hurt the country, the people, and self; so how can those martial arts demand only quantity and not quality especially when quantity often negatively affects quality? Already, lifelong learning of one skill may not enable one to reach its heights, so if one is not single-minded, how can its quality be raised? 

From the perspective of training, different boxing techniques result in different training effects. Some have similar principles regarding force, so these can be trained together, but some have different principles and these cannot be trained together. Taiji is actually very different from other kinds of boxing techniques; it is even different from Xingyiquan and Baguazhang, although they too are internal boxing techniques, so what more from external boxing techniques? 

One has its usefulness in hard strength while the other, in softness. External boxing masters pride themselves in being able to lift a thousand-weight. Taiji masters, on the other hand, train till they are so soft that they are almost boneless, discard all hard strength and sacrifice the self to follow others. The rule of Taiji is looseness and softness, with insubstantiality as the highest level of attainment; it's not easy to become really soft in one's lifetime of learning and so become a master in Taiji, so how can one be a specialist in external boxing as well as a Taiji specialist? So whenever I read about masters who are introduced as being experts in all kinds of external and internal boxing techniques, I can only smile.

Taiji is a difficult and complex skill. It is said "skill consumes much hardwork", so a great deal of time and energy must be spent to seriously study this skill before results emerge. Recently, to popularize Taiji, the relevant authority compiled the "abridged Taijiquan", and some even put a lot of effort in shortening the routines thinking, "the shorter the better." Though they mean well as they would like to popularize the skill, but if there are too few movements in Taijiquan, then it cannot help the body achieve the goal of softness and so becomes useless. And what has this to do with raising the quality ofTaijiquan ? This is definitely not what we should work toward. So, it looks like, besides popularizing Taiji, we should also solve the problem of raising the quality of Taiji.


Taichi Essentials for Beginners. Part II © 2003 Rennie Chong

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