4 minute read

Lately, I've been feeling a strong tension between the outer form and the inner essence of practices like Tai Chi and qigong.

One student presented this dilemma to me because he was trying to figure out what to practice. With limited practice time, he had too many different forms and didn't know how to pick between them. I told him that he should have a balanced practice based on the attributes that each form develops, or express the full range of energetic principles at his disposal -- some hard, some soft, some integrated and smooth.

It's not a question of how many forms, but rather, how do I find the right energetic balance for my constitution and life situation. For that, you need to explore the internal essence.

Discussing this problem with my students and with my teachers, I've come to see it as a four step process that takes you from form to essence and back to form.

Here are two examples of how to break your forms down and infuse them with new energy.

A Soft, Yielding Flow

Tai Chi is known for softness in response to hard external forces. "Lu" or "Roll Back" is prized as a Tai Chi quality that sets it apart from other arts. And the benefits of being able to soften and absorb energy are huge. Through this kind of training, you tune up your restorative abilities. You counteract the stress cycle and recharge your batteries much faster -- better sleep, better recovery from illness, more resilience in general.

But here's the problem. You can do the rote, stick-figure-like movements of Tai Chi for the next 5,000 years and you will never necessarily manifest these qualities. You need to go right to the essence of softening to uncover its depths.

Check out this Elephant Wrestling video if you've never seen it before. The rules of the game force you to develop, among other things, yielding throughout the body:

In this exercise, you can't move your feet. You need to learn to roll, yield, soften, and absorb through your whole body. Of course, you connect through the legs and feet to create a stronger root, but if you create any stiffness in the body, your partner can upset your balance.

This is only one Push Hands tool, but when you use it, you find the essence of yielding. Your nervous system begins to respond in a different way and you can start to use this quality in your form.

So here's the process:

  1. Learn the form
  2. Find an "essential" drill to highlight one facet of your practice
  3. Before you return to the form, work the "proto-Tai Chi" version, where the essence is expressed in a quasi-formal way (picture the solo training in the video above without the equipment)
  4. Merge 1 and 3, so that your form more truly expresses its essence

When I say "proto-Tai Chi" in Step 3, I mean movements that do not strictly adhere to form and shapes, but that focus purely on expressing the internal essence of a movement. These movements are an essential bridge to a more enlivened form.

Building Yang Structure

The classic example at the other end of the yin/yang continuum in Xing Yi's San Ti.

In this 5-minute practice, watch how the emphasis is almost completely on opening up the body and creating a stable structure:

Even though you're after a different essence, you train it the same way: find one exercise that clearly expresses the essence you're after and ignore everything else.

Then, once you feel like your mind, your energy, and your body are united in expressing this essence, you can begin to work your way back to a formal shape.

I see many students get confused here. They say "why are we doing this exercise...shouldn't I also be doing this and this and this....I just want to learn the form."

For some reason, though, the forms have been passed to us like encoded messages. You can't crack them by repeating the code. You need special tools and algorithms to decipher them. Hopefully, in this post, you've learn one such algorithm that will help you unlock the essence of your form.