The Problem with Learning Tai Chi from the Classics

Yang Chen Fu Single WhipWhen you read the Tai Chi Classics and look at photos of the old masters, everything looks graceful, flowing, and full of life.

The problem is, your daily practice can be full of aches, pains, kinks, binds and the feeling that you’re never really going to get it.

There is a lot of territory between, “oh man, it hurts, I’ll never get past it” and “be still like a mountain, flowing like a great river” that isn’t discussed in the Tai Chi Classics or most books on Tai Chi. They tend to just give you the gold standard for where you want to go, with not a lot of detail about what it’s like to travel that road.

In this post, I want to talk about some of those points in between, and the general challenge of learning from the Classics. I will refer mostly to Yang’s Ten Important Points, by Yang Chen Fu, available from Lee Scheele (thank you!).

Initially, when you look at Yang’s list, or begin receiving instruction, you feel like you have a checklist of things you must do.

The first three points tell you how to hold your body:

1.) Head upright to let the shen [spirit of vitality] rise to the top of the head. Don’t use li [external strength], or the neck will be stiff and the ch’i [vital life energy] and blood cannot flow through. It is necessary to have a natural and lively feeling. If the spirit cannot reach the headtop, it cannot raise.

2.) Sink the chest and pluck up the back.
The chest is depressed naturally inward so that the ch’i can sink to the tan-t’ien [field of elixir]. Don’t expand the chest: the ch’i gets stuck there and the body becomes top-heavy. The heel will be too light and can be uprooted. Pluck up the back and the ch’i sticks to the back; depress the chest and you can pluck up the back. Then you can discharge force through the spine. You will be a peerless boxer.

3.) Sung [Relax] the waist. The waist is the commander of the whole body. If you can sung the waist, then the two legs will have power and the lower part will be firm and stable. Substantial and insubstantial change, and this is based on the turning of the waist. It is said “the source of the postures lies in the waist. If you cannot get power, seek the defect in the legs and waist.”

Do you know what would happen if I read this list to a class on Day One? You’d see people lifting, sinking, squirming and bobbing up and down trying to make all 3 happen at the same time. In fact, even more experienced Tai Chi practitioners continue to practice in a mindset where they are constantly worried about whether they are doing 7 or 8 different things right all the time.

When you practice this way, how can you follow point number 8?

8.) Harmonize the internal and external. In the practice of T’ai Chi Ch’uan the main thing is the shen. Therefore it is said “the spirit is the commander and the body is subordinate.” If you can raise the spirit, then the movements will naturally be agile. The postures are not beyond insubstantial and substantial, opening and closing. That which is called open means not only the hands and feet are open, but the mind is also open. That which is called closed means not only the hands and feet are closed, but the mind is also closed. When you can make the inside and outside become one, then it becomes complete.

When you focus on the alignment checklist, there is no room for the mind to open and close. Whatever you are trying work on is contracted, locked down, and disintegrated from everything else.

Of course, this problem sends people in the opposite direction. They just go by feel, tuning out physical sensations, body awareness and internal connection in exchange for a state of bliss generated from images and ideas, not grounded in the body.

So how do you approach all the things you “should” do in Tai Chi for health and still make it enjoyable? (And yes, get better at Tai Chi too.)

Here are some common stumbling blocks and my recommendation for gradually dissolving them.

Stiffness in The Body

It’s not uncommon to feel stiff when you try to achieve certain body alignments.

In Yang’s Ten Important points, his description of integrated movement is actually incredibly useful for how you should hold yourself posturally:

9.) Move with continuity. As to the external schools, their chin is the Latter Heaven brute chin. Therefore it is finite. There are connections and breaks. During the breaks the old force is exhausted and the new force has not yet been born. At these moments it is very easy for others to take advantage. T’ai Chi Ch’uan uses I and not li. From beginning to end it is continuous and not broken. It is circular and again resumes. It revolves and has no limits. The original Classics say it is “like a great river rolling on unceasingly.” and that the circulation of the chin is “drawing silk from a cocoon ” They all talk about being connected together.

So, when you attempt to hold an alignment (in a static posture, for example), move yourself into it and continue to move into it imperceptibly, “like a great river rolling on unceasingly.”

This applies to: the lift through the crown of the head, sinking the tailbone/relaxing the lower back, lengthening the elbows away from the spine, and generally anything else where the bones have to move into a particular position.

Forcing Your Body to Change

The problem with using “Latter Heaven brute chin or overt muscular force to correct yourself is that the tissues never have time to release and you lose the sensitivity that will also allow you to feel what is happening energetically.

Yang covers this in point number 6:

6.) Use the mind instead of force. The T’ai Chi Ch’uan Classics say, “all of this means use I [mind-intent] and not li.” In practicing T’ai Chi Ch’uan the whole body relaxes. Don’t let one ounce of force remain in the blood vessels, bones, and ligaments to tie yourself up. Then you can be agile and able to change. You will be able to turn freely and easily. Doubting this, how can you increase your power?

The body has meridians like the ground has ditches and trenches. If not obstructed the water can flow. If the meridian is not closed, the ch’i goes through. If the whole body has hard force and it fills up the meridians, the ch’i and the blood stop and the turning is not smooth and agile. Just pull one hair and the whole body is off-balance. If you use I, and not li, then the I goes to a place in the body and the ch’i follows it. The ch’i and the blood circulate. If you do this every day and never stop, after a long time you will have nei chin [real internal strength]. The T’ai Chi Ch’uan Classics say, “when you are extremely soft, you become extremely hard and strong.” Someone who has extremely good T’ai Chi Ch’uan kung fu has arms like iron wrapped with cotton and the weight is very heavy. As for the external schools, when they use li, they reveal li. When they don’t use li, they are too light and floating. There chin is external and locked together. The li of the external schools is easily led and moved, and not too be esteemed.

Our challenge is to always be connected and moving enough physically, but also leave room in our awareness for the energetic flows and sensations that arise.

Eventually, this method of practice will help you discover where your energy is blocked and get at the source of aches and pains or resolve them without you having to fixate on them.

Too Relaxed and Collapsed

When you feel collapsed, often in the knees when people are first learning stances, or in the abdomen if you feel tired or out of breath when you practice, you need to follow the first point, or at least a version of it. Remember point number one:

1.) Head upright to let the shen [spirit of vitality] rise to the top of the head. Don’t use li [external strength], or the neck will be stiff and the ch’i [vital life energy] and blood cannot flow through. It is necessary to have a natural and lively feeling. If the spirit cannot reach the headtop, it cannot raise.

Collapsed knees or similar feelings that come from trying to sink the energy, lower your center of gravity, or create a root are all symptoms of going too far. You need opening and rising to connect, literally, all the way to the crown of the head.

Somewhere in the complex matrix of bones, joints, tissues, and energy channels, you’ve closed down an important flow point. Instead of thinking there is something wrong with a particular body part, you need to investigate what supports it and how you are connecting through it.

Give Up Yourself and Follow Others – Finding a Tai Chi Process

Finally, Scheele does share an essay that talks about process and not just goals. The theme is an explanation of another saying from the Classics, that “four ounces deflects a thousand pounds,” probably the most famous description of high-level Tai Chi as an interactive practice.

When you read the beginning of the essay, you’ll start to see how the holy grail of Tai Chi’s interactive capabilities can be traced all the way back to your attitude starting out in solo practice.

From The Essentials of the Practice of the Form and Push Hands, by Lee I-Yu:

Formerly people said: “being able to attract to emptiness, you can use four ounces to deflect a thousand pounds.” Not being able to attract to emptiness, you cannot deflect a thousand pounds. The words are simple, but the meaning is complete. The beginner cannot understand it. Here I add some words to explain it. If someone is ambitious to learn this art, he can find some way to enter it and every day he will have some improvement.

Desiring to attract to emptiness and deflect a thousand pounds, first you must know yourself and others. If you want to know yourself and others, you must give up yourself and follow others. If you give up yourself and follow others, first you must have the correct timing and position. To obtain the correct timing and position, you must first make your body one unit. Desiring to make the body one unit, you must first eliminate hollows and protuberances. To make the whole body without breaks or holes, you must first have the shen [spirit of vitality] and ch’i [vital life energy] excited and expanded. If you want the shen and ch’i activated and expanded, you must first raise the spirit (pay attention) and the shen should not be unfocussed. To have your shen not unfocussed, you must first have the shen and ch’i gather and penetrate the bones. Desiring the shen and ch’i to penetrate the bones, first you must strengthen the two thighs and loosen the two shoulders and let the ch’i sink down.

I think we need to expose ourselves to more of this kind of process discussion. Too often, the most experienced practitioners forgot how they trained to achieve their high levels of skill and those of us at lower levels don’t yet know where we are going.

Whenever I get a great “process” report, I’ll share it with you here. Do you have any?

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Comments

  1. Thanks Dan,

    There’s an incredible amount of depth and complexity in here. Thank you for sharing your research and analysis.

  2. Erwan Kergall says:

    Hey Dan,
    I find your final quote from The Essentials of the Practice of the Form and Push Hands, by Lee I-Yu, particularly interesting.

    The whole sequence is spelled out in reverse order, which makes it a bit confusing.
    But let’s put all this back into developmental order :

    1) strengthen the two thighs and loosen the two shoulders and let the ch’i [vital life energy] sink down
    2) have the shen [spirit of vitality] and ch’i gather and penetrate the bones
    3) raise the spirit (pay attention) and focus the shen (it should not be unfocussed)
    4) have the shen and ch’i excited and expanded
    5) eliminate hollows and protuberances (make the whole body without breaks or holes)
    6) make your body one unit
    7) obtain the correct timing and position
    8) give up yourself and follow others
    9) know yourself and others
    (hey, isn’t this a quote from a passage in Sun Tse’s ‘Art of War’?)
    10) be able to attract to emptiness
    11) be able to use four ounces to deflect a thousand pounds

    Remarks :
    To me, steps 1 through 5 seem to describe the process of Standing Chi Gung as Bruce describes it in the I-Chan DVDs.
    Step 6 seems to refer to the 3 external harmonies, so it probably alludes to basic moving practices, like cloud hands and other single movement exercises.
    Step 7 could be refering to learning the form.
    Step 8 to 10 sound like developmental stages in the practice of Push Hands

    Amiright ?

    Erwan

    PS : here’s the exact Sun Tzu quote (from http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Sun_Tzu):
    知彼知己,百戰不殆;不知彼而知己,一勝一負;不知彼,不知己,每戰必殆
    Translation :
    if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not lose in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will lose in every single battle.

  3. Erwan,

    Nice summary. I’ve been reading it in reverse too! But I think there’s a little more too it than seeing it as one linear process. That’s actually what inspired me to write this follow-up about what we’ll be doing next month in Chicago: http://dankleiman.com/2013/10/11/tai-chi-rooting-sinking-and-more-in-chicago/

    I used to think 1-6 was strictly done in solo practice, but I’ve been exposed more and more to the two-person methods for cultivating these qualities, then backing them up with solo training. That loop has been so helpful.

    By the way, for anyone who doesn’t have a regular training partner, Don’s equipment training process is a pretty interested method for getting some of the two-person benefits while training on your own: http://dankleiman.com/2012/08/27/tai-chi-equipment-training-with-don-ethan-miller/

    7-11 really come from two-person work. Timing and position have to be in response to outside forces. There’s a difference between coordination (learning the form, e.g.) and timing (applying the right move in response to an outside stimulus). I recently came across some research that suggests learning coordination and timing happen in two different circuits of the brain: http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2013/09/deconstructing-motor-skills/

    Interestingly here, I think 7-11 parallel the learning process in 1-6: first you are concerned with overt structure, then energetic sensitivity, then integration. I’d have to think this through a little more, but the refinement of solo and two-person seems to follow a similar arc.

    What interests me the most these days is the interplay between solo and two-person. So like I said at the beginning, while it looks like a linear progression, there is all fascinating stuff to discover when you weave them together. 🙂

    Good stuff!
    D

  4. Thanks, Kevin!

  5. richard shapiro says:

    the phrases that I have used as a guidepost for my taiji training has been, well, more classic than that, coming from the original classics.
    flow like a river, stand like a mountain
    move like a string of pearls.
    movemen t is rooted in the earth, developed by the feet and legs, supported by the waist, and guided through the hands (poor translation, sorry)
    as you move left, maintain awareness of left
    and so on
    these to me describe a much deeper level of what tai chi practice is aiming at and are much more condusive to finding that taiji state within practice
    although for sure chengs 10 points are good and useful, there is something about a poetic phrase that activates your brain, mind, and body in a more wholistic way, encourages an experiential rather than a prescriptive/directive mindset.
    to me, flow like a river, stand like a mountain describes taiji much better than the 10 points.
    but that’s just my take on it, and I was exposed to those phrases early on in my training, it’s kinda how I started exploring what tai chi is, beyond simply being qigong, health exercise, or fighting skill development method.
    hope this is useful, love to hear what other’s think…

  6. richard shapiro says:

    um, I really meant, as you move left, keep awareness of the right,…sorry