Taiji is the gentle path to harmony (equilibrium of the spirit, and the interplay of yin and yang, nature and mastery of one’s self). It is a way towards a natural state of being, inner peace, love, tranquility, harmony and balance.
Sometimes called the Supreme Ultimate or Grand Harmony, the practice of taiji offers an opportunity to refine ourselves and do some good in the world while improving our health and emotional calm. Taiji is easy; only resistance makes it hard.
The body’s resistance to change is called homeostasis. Little by little, through practice, we acquire a new skill or ability and learn to release the stress and tension ordinarily associated with everyday activities.
Each day we practice with the body we have, which when better coordinated and balanced produces a stronger, more robust and flexible body.
We seek tranquility in movement and movement in tranquility; we use the breath to manifest power through our hands and fingers.
The idea of being tranquil, calm, empty, still, peaceful, relaxed, grounded and centered becomes clearer to us as we experience these sensations. Taiji, then, is a moveable meditation − we take these ideas wherever we go to remain in that desirable state.
Our inner focus is on kindness, simplicity, love, prayer, mindfulness and emptiness. These words need the ‘wings’ of your own experience to be clearly understood. Through them we come to realise the urgency of doing some good in the world by developing a more altruistic nature.
We practice the forms to know ourselves; to know others, we practice sensing, or push hands in an artificial environment that is created for learning these techniques.We get good at what we practice the most. We get worse at what we practice the least.
The Taiji classics speak of the straight arrow as a noble desire. We build merit with noble desires but are led astray by the crooked arrows of weakness and evil desires. Taiji as a two-step process – first we find the arrow, Xin or heart/mind, then we draw the bow to develop character, intention, mindfulness, clarity and alertness.
The movements of taiji are natural mechanisms that work to tune and refine our inner energy.
The story goes, ‘we ferment grapes to get wine, we distill wine to get brandy, and we further distill to make cognac,’ a more refined and powerful taste.
Continuing to cultivate our chi, we relate better to those around us and worldly affairs and tune in to the frequency of the natural environment. Taiji reflects nature; as our Shen (spirit) is refined our Yi (focused intention) mirrors our natural world. Its movements follow the natural lines of the body, resulting in better health and overall wellbeing. It is an anti-inflammatory exercise that eliminates the need for drugs or medication.
Relax and flowing is a concept unique to taiji. Movements are connected like waves and so we learn to avoid breaks and the bumps in the road and between movements. We experience each movement as a wave of energy rolling as continuous motion: this is the essence of taiji and characteristic of the connecting principle central to the creation of relationships and assisting our own human progress. Mastery itself is constant flowing rather than attainment of perfection. We evolve towards mastery on a continuous learning curve, growing and blossoming as unique, aware and evolved human beings. Like ourselves, mastery either evolves or fossilizes. Taiji is a longevity practice.
The five stages of training
1. Ji – ability − I can do this
2. Dui – correct − the accuracy of posture and breathing
3. Hao – good, has a beautiful quality, pleasant to perform or watch
4. Miao – individual cleverness and uniqueness (one’s own stamp)
5. Ji – limit − where no other can copy or do in the same way; it is a mystery how you got there
Progress through these levels depends on our intention in training and practice. It is a personal evolution where we experience different feelings (mindfulness or an existential state of no self, or selflessness). Becoming empty of ourselves is the basic seed of motivation to train.
We use the ideas and concepts first, then our physical movement, and then energy follows on its own accord. Techniques assist in moving us inwards towards the light, which aids in developing our intention, our character, compassion, benevolence and integrity.
Our flow and intention leads to specific taiji outcomes, such as:
1. a martial art – soft overcomes hard
2. a meditation – moving and unblocking our chi internally
3. a philosophy or system of thought – the practical way
4. a continuous and harmonious action
5. a movement art – the body, mind and spirit are integrated with your thoughts and expressions allowing a greater creativity when practicing; a continuous stream producing happiness, joy, internal power and strength
6. a method of exercising your brain
7. bouncing away conflict – our intention sends a thought which becomes an outcome determined by how and what we practice.
Remember that intention is not exertion or struggle but rather moving with the purpose of cultivating our life force for vitality and good health.
By cultivating chi / qi, or life force through the air we breathe, the food we eat, our environment or from birth (pre-natal chi) we conserve our energies. All chi can be replenished, except pre-natal chi which arises at birth and slowly dissipates with age as we begin the return to the earth.
The goal of cultivating and accumulating chi is continuous and harmonious and synergenic whereby all parts of the body work together. As we open our channels and vessels the excess energy brings new life and renewed health. This is because the energy needs a clear flowing path unobstructed by tension, bottlenecks, or blockages which may cause deficient chi and imbalances. ‘Where the chi goes the blood follows’ means that better circulation increases our overall health and wellbeing. When energy stops flowing our bodies are prone to invasion by ill health and disease. So, the benefit of training taiji is better health.
What causes imbalance?
As the mind mobilizes the chi, it propels our movements. Thus, taiji helps us to relax (absence of tension), helps align the body and increases energy flow through our meridians and channels. Discomfort is an indication of bodily tension or blockages.
Because of tension and stress, we lose awareness and the flow of chi is disrupted. We lose our balance when we lose the flow. Tension cuts off this connection, and the chi stops flowing. Therefore we check ourselves for tightness or tension. We should connect from the bubbling well (the tickle of energy that feels like water from a bubbler under the soles of your feet) to the ba hui (point of a thousand possibilities) that is located at the top of the head. Our energy is pulled up from the earth (the feet) and down through the top of the head (heaven). Between heaven and earth is the human being in the centre, coming together as the energies connect, body balances and energy stabilises.
Cultivating our chi and our posture will help us to tame our monkey minds (uncontrolled thought patterns). Only then can we develop our character through merit and virtuous actions by expanding our awareness and senses. As the energy rises to the top of the head we feel light and floating but remain empty, lively and alert, in control of our impulses, circulating our vital energy.
Movements should be coordinated such that where there is up, there also is down, and vice versa. We can expand our powers of awareness by using our five senses − hearing, sight, touch, smell and feel − and five sensors – temperature, pressure, joint position, muscle state and pain.
Breathing (four steps) is also a connecting principle in taiji:
1) the depth of the breath
2) the length of the breath
3) Gentle not forced, sipped not gulped
4) Smooth and continuous
There are also eight basic intentions in taiji stemming from the original thirteen postures:
peng / ward off, lui / yield or rollback, li / squeeze, pierce or press, an / push, cai èto yank down sharply or pull down or pluck or tear apart, lie / split (two directions at once e.g. parting the wild horses mane), zhou / to give them the elbow, kao / to give them the shoulder (battering ram).
These intentions, together with the five directions of forward, backward, left, right and centre balance (middle), form the original thirteen outcomes or intentions of traditional taiji training.
In daily life, the application of these outcomes can be seen in conflict management solutions, i.e. managing verbal attacks (create a bubble as in ‘ward off’), deflecting energy (roll back), giving it right back (press) or something deeper or an underlying problem (push- getting underneath it lifting it and letting it go!).
The body moves like silk weaving, all parts should be strung together like silk (Chan Si) silk reeling –let the waist roll like a ball (rolling waist) i.e. in every movement every part is silk reeling We express these ideas through our movements as we shove the monkey mind out of the door.
"The monkey is reaching for the moon in the water
and ‘til death overtakes him
He’ll never give up.
Oh, if only he would let go of the branch
and disappear into the pool
the whole world would sigh with dazzling clearness".
- Hakuin – famous Zen scholar & master
As tea is mentioned many times in Zen, Daoist and Buddhist and Martial Arts folklore (mostly between master and disciple or between masters themselves) it is apt to mention the importance of tea drinking, whereas nowadays in the West we have become accustomed to drinking coffee. It is told that the Emperor of China discovered tea whilst sitting waiting for his dinner outdoors; a wind blew some leaves into the pot of steaming water and rather than throwing the water away the Emperor chose to taste it – with the exclamation Cha! – Mmmm… henceforth - heavenly tea). He chose to smell the tea before tasting it thereby expanding his powers of awareness.
Seven bowls of tea - A famous Zen story, author unknown, about how a single portion of very good tea can be used many times!
1 The first bowl moistens my lips and throat
2 The second bowl banishes my melancholy and loneliness
3 The third bowl penetrates my withered entrails finding nothing except a literary core of 5000 scrolls (all the stuff in our heads)
4 The fourth bowl casts out life’s inequities through my pores
5 The fifth bowl purifies my flesh and bones
6 The sixth bowl makes me one with the immortal feathered spirits
7 The seventh bowl I need not drink… feeling only a pure wind rushing beneath my wings
Yong Yi Bu yong Li - intention not exertion – try softer
Xu Ling Ding Jin - empty alertness
Song Yao - loosen the waist (small of the back), release, relax the lower section of the body (from the hips below) to lead the movements. This determines our ability to lead from the centre.
Dan Tien - the spiritual gut of our intention; like a compass needle and denotes martial virtue or meritorious actions.
Fen Qing Xu Shi - clearly separate empty and full by distinguishing your weight distribution i.e. filling the right and emptying the left (or vice versa) and avoiding double-weightedness.
Nei Wai Xiang He - the inside reflects the outside, mirror-like, mutual agreement. As the body (horizontal) moves through space, time stands still (vertical), Shen raises our consciousness (jing shen) which moves the body (a soldier).
Xian Jian Zhui Zhou - sink the shoulders and droop or drop the elbows
Han Xiong Ba Bei - sink the chest, draw out the spine: no slumping or leaning
Chou Si - pull the silk i.e. in the transition from one movement to the next, the body floats out in the wind, the threads of energy/spirit makes the whole cloth like weaving a special suit. Our legs connect to our arms as the lower to the upper.
Excerpts from The Great Courses "Masters of Heaven and Earth"
by Sifu David Dorian-Ross