10 minute read

By training the principles of body-alignment and movement as described in the Tai Chi Classics, you can move with much more grace, fluidity, and power. Instead of wasting energy holding excess tension, relaxation can lead the way to more powerful movement. Here's what Yang Cheng-fu said about it a hundred years ago (the following is adapted from YANG'S TEN IMPORTANT POINTS by Yang Cheng-fu (1883 â€" 1936) as researched by Lee N. Scheele and published on http://www.scheele.org/lee/classics.html. Scheele's translation is first and my notes are in italics following):

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.

If you're sitting at your computer right now, what do your head and neck feel like? The beginning of effortless posture is how you hold your head. As it collapses down and forward, you begin a stress-inducing cascade of neck and shoulder pain, poor breathing, and bad posture.

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.

Here's another posture tip. Lengthen the spine. It's the opposite of “fetal position” fight or flight response (again, think stress). When you keep the chest relaxed and sunk, you naturally begin to breathe deeply with the diaphragm, getting a more efficient breath and actually nourishing the internal organs, literally massaging them with internal pressure changes. This is all the opposite of what happens to breath and posture when you hyperventilate.

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."

Now we're getting into some more esoteric terminology, but as a tai chi teacher, I've found that many of my students have frozen hips. Start there. If you can't distinguish the movement of the legs, pelvis, and trunk, then your source of power and movement is seriously diminished. You should be able to internally and externally rotate each leg independently of hip movement and roll the pelvis around without moving the spine or legs. Once you can move all these parts independently, you can learn to lead movements with hip drive and powerful rotation.

4.) Differentiate between insubstantial and substantial. This is the first principle in T'ai Chi Ch'uan. If the weight of the whole body is resting on the right leg, then the right leg is substantial and the left leg is insubstantial, and vice versa. When you can separate substantial and insubstantial, you can turn lightly without using strength. If you cannot separate, the step is heavy and slow. The stance is not firm and can be easily thrown of balance.

Ever see someone get caught “flat-footed” on the court? The ability to distinguish where your weight is by feel, and quickly shift your center of gravity left and right is critical for reaction speed and movement. In tai chi, you learn to make this distinction completely clearly in slow motion, and then you gradually increase the speed.

5.) Sink the shoulders and drop the elbows. The shoulders will be completely relaxed and open. If you cannot relax and sink, the two shoulders will be raised up and tense. The ch'i will follow them up and the whole body cannot get power. "Drop the elbows" means the elbows go down and relax. If the elbows raise, the shoulders are not able to sink and you cannot discharge people far. The discharge will then be close to the broken force of the external schools.

This principle has to do with power-generation in tai chi, and may not be completely adaptable to your sport, but I will point this out: whenever you are in motion and you feel your shoulders start to creep towards your ears, you're experiencing the beginning of that fight or flight response. By training the physical opposite, you are sending your body the message that relaxation in motion is possible, and you're getting better at maintaining it.

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.

When he refers to “force” or “li” in this principle, you should read it as “extra” or “unnecessary tension”. Too many people have a silly fantasy about tai chi relying on magical chi and no force as an excuse for not training hard. The way you get to effortless power in tai chi is by refining you movements, stripping them of unnecessary tension, layer by layer. You do tai chi in slow motion so that your mind can search every inch of your insides and find the extra tension that is holding back your movements.

7.) Coordinate the upper and lower parts of the body. The T'ai Chi Ch'uan Classics say "the motion should be rooted in the feet, released through the legs, controlled by the waist and manifested through the fingers." Everything acts simultaneously. When the hand, waist and foot move together, the eyes follow. If one part doesn't follow, the whole body is disordered.

This description of force generation, coming from the ground and going up through the body and out the fingers is almost word for word how Curt Schilling described throwing a perfect pitch. Again, think of the basic practices of tai chi, the slow motion form work, as awareness training that lets you pay attention to these connections in a way you wouldn't be able to always going fast. Take any movement from your sport and try it in slow motion. Can you find these links?

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.

You hear people describe moments of flow, when time slows down, or the ball or the net looks huge and making the shot was inevitable. These moments are perfect examples of the inside and the outside becoming one. When the mind opens up and the internal and external are harmonized, you access a different kind of awareness. Tai Chi actually includes a systematic training method for getting you into that state, again and again.

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.

Try this exercise: with your index finger, draw a box in front of you and keep going around, with sharp corners and edges. Try to pay attention to your breathing at the same time. Now compare that to what it feels like to make a circle with your finger. See how much easier it is to tune into your breathing doing circular movement? Feel how the stop and start of linear movement briefly “freezes” your nervous system as you change directions. It's this simple practice of circular movement, repeated on deeper and deeper levels, that is the key to relaxation in tai chi.

10.) Move with tranquility [Seek stillness in movement]. The external schools assume jumping about is good and they use all their energy. That is why after practice everyone pants. T'ai Chi Ch'uan uses stillness to control movement. Although one moves, there is also stillness. Therefore in practicing the form, slower is better. If it is slow, the inhalation and exhalation are long and deep and the ch'i sinks to the tan-t'ien. Naturally there is no injurious practice such as engorgement of the blood vessels. The learner should be careful to comprehend it. Then you will get the real meaning.

Often, when people start learning tai chi, they think “ok, I'm going to get this right”, as if doing the movement perfectly once was the end goal and they could stop there. That's the completely wrong way to think about it. In tai chi, you are setting up a state or a condition where all of the postural alignments, layers of relaxation, and continuity of movement can gel. Your goal is to experience that state, returning to it again and again, “seeking stillness in movement”. Daily practice, when you enter this state, becomes a major recharge and even when you are doing tai chi as a way to get better at something else, the nourishing, refreshing experience of doing the practice slowly becomes the goal itself.