I want to thank Paul Brennan for making translations of classic Tai Chi texts available online. Please visit his site and let him know we all appreciate the awesome work he's doing.
In THE TAIJI BOXING OF MR. WU JIANQUAN - FOR SELF-STUDY, by Chen Zhenmin & Ma Yueliang, published by the Health Magazine Society, May, 1935, translation by Paul Brennan, May, 2012, the authors explain the foundational body mechanics of Tai Chi.
At the same time, they highlight the way that using your mind to guide your body has the potential to change much more than how you carry yourself.
The question is, when you are training Tai Chi body mechanics, what is the scope of what you actually influence. Their beautiful answer to this is, "When practicing the solo set, the whole body feels comfortable, and when practicing the pushing hands, the whole body feels enlivened. Therefore after practicing for a while, not only will one not feel tired, but one's spirit will also feel awakened, a clear demonstration of one's sense of interest being boosted."
And they even address the issue that so many people experience when they set out looking for these qualities. You see advanced practitioners and want to emulate their movement qualities, "However, for beginners, because they have not yet become familiar with the map that will lead them to their destinations, they easily begin to get bored, and they must be patient for a period, after which they naturally will gradually come to find the more scenic vistas of sensation."
There are so many gems in the following two chapters where they explain "the distinct characteristics of Taiji Boxing" and "guidelines for practice" that I'll point out the highlights as we go through the translations in full. (Bold notes are my additions. The following text is taken from Brennan's translation, without the accompanying Chinese. Please go here to see the full text.)
CHAPTER THREE: DISTINCT CHARACTERISTICS OF TAIJI BOXING
The name "Taiji Boxing" is not interpreted the same by everyone. It has been said [quoting from Xu Zhiyi's 1927 book]: "[A taiji ("grand pivot") is the condition before dividing into the dual polarities of passive and active. When there is movement, it splits into passive and active. When there is stillness, they merge to become a taiji again.] In terms of Taiji Boxing's cultivation aspect, you must train to go from movement toward stillness. This is like passive and active merging to become a taiji. In terms of its defense aspect, its alternations between emptiness and fullness are concealed inwardly rather than revealed outwardly. This is like the taiji not yet splitting into passive and active. [And hence the name Taiji.]"
It has also been said: "All of the movements in Taiji Boxing are rounded in shape, modeled upon the taiji diagram [or "yinyang symbol"], and thus it is called Taiji."
These explanations are both reasonable, though the more mundane second one probably has the edge. As for the movements in Taiji Boxing, they are completely different from the hardness of Shaolin Boxing, based in the principles of emptiness, calmness, naturalness, and overcoming by way of softness, each of which are explained below:
Emptiness in Taiji Boxing does not mean there is nothing there, just that there seems to be nothing there. With this immateriality, there is a ghostliness, and with this ghostliness, spirit fills up until it controls the whole body. With spirit abundant and energy complete, naturally the movement will be nimble.
The very first principle -- emptiness inside leads to quality of movement outside.
When practicing Shaolin Boxing, one must jump around and exert oneself, and people who are not suited for such training always end up panting and exhausted. Taiji Boxing is not like this, but lies in the three aspects of body, mind, and intent, and in each of these strives for calmness. When practicing the solo set, the slower the better, for this causes the breath to become deep and long, and energy to sink to the elixir field - this is the manifestation of physical calmness. When practicing, there must a single flow integrating eyes, hands, waist, and feet, upper body and lower coordinating with each other, and not the slightest bit of disorder - this is the manifestation of mental calmness. Using intention rather than exertion, wherever the movement is going, the intent is going along with it - this is the manifestation of calmness of intent.
Again, this is the precise recipe for an internal approach, which is so hard to sense at first, since we are all used to external exertion.
Taiji Boxing's movements are purely natural. If you press your head up, contain your chest and pluck up your back, loosen your waist and lower your buttocks, and sink your shoulders and drop your elbows, your whole body will be kept by these things from being in any way artificial in its posture, and will conform to the natural deportment of the human body.
The details of the Tai Chi body mechanics are explained below, but here they are in a nutshell, under the heading of "naturalness."
When practicing Taiji Boxing, the most important thing to avoid is exertion. Keeping your body relaxed and your circulation smooth, in the course of time you will automatically develop internal power. This kind of power is very soft. When you encounter an opponent, if you harbor no feeling of resistance, you will be able to follow along with his power, contracting and then expanding. Thus it is said that within softness there is springiness. A Taiji essay [Understanding How to Practice] says: "Extreme softness begets extreme hardness." This is exactly the idea.
This is subtle, but the first 3 principles are all about transitioning us out of our typical bearing, urging us to let go and become more natural. Only here, in the fourth principle do they hint at where it will all go -- towards a very powerful springiness and hardness -- but only after we've stripped everything away.
What with Taiji Boxing having these kinds of features, a person who practices it can obtain these results:
When illness occurs, it has an effect on the spirit and an effect on the body, and the aim in Taiji is to aid you both physically and psychologically at the same time. Because the movement is slow, it has the capacity to make both the body limber and the circulation smooth, and so whether the problems are nervous disorders, anemia, indigestion, or ailments within organs, bones, vessels, or connective tissue, all can be dealt with by way of practice. Even in the case of incurable diseases, it can achieve a huge effect. However, with advanced stages of heart disease or tuberculosis, the practice should very gradually be increased and one must not rush into overdoing it, and it would be best under such circumstances to get a teacher to guide you.
2. CHARACTER TRANSFORMATION
When emptiness becomes a habit, it causes you to have a milder temperament and can eliminate arrogant behaviors. When calmness becomes a habit, it causes you to have a clearer mental state, increasing your ability to deal with problems. When naturalness becomes a habit and your body has a smooth coordination, it causes you to have a more robust build, which gives you a more leisurely attitude. When softness becomes a habit, it causes you to have a friendlier disposition, giving you more confidence.
3. INCREASED INSPIRATION
Because every part of the Taiji boxing art contains scientific principles [This seems an airy claim since there is no specific scientific analysis in this book, but becomes more reasonable when taken in the context of the larger body of Taiji literature: for example, Xu Zhiyi's 1927 book contains three chapters exploring Taiji's relation to psychology, physiology, and physics.], and also due to its alternations of emptiness and fullness, it is a method that is inexhaustible. When practicing the solo set, the whole body feels comfortable, and when practicing the pushing hands, the whole body feels enlivened. Therefore after practicing for a while, not only will one not feel tired, but one's spirit will also feel awakened, a clear demonstration of one's sense of interest being boosted. However, for beginners, because they have not yet become familiar with the map that will lead them to their destinations, they easily begin to get bored, and they must be patient for a period, after which they naturally will gradually come to find the more scenic vistas of sensation.
This 3-part explanation of the benefits is probably my favorite part of the whole text. First, the physical and psychological benefits effortlessly follow from the practice principles above. When you bring the body back into a natural state, everything sorts itself out, a very Taoist idea.
But they extend the benefits to transformation of character as well -- so we see the progression from physical, mental, and emotional to spiritual change as well. And not because of a set of beliefs, because of practical habits that are being cultivated from the very beginning.
And that would be enough, but the third section on "Increased Inspiration" wraps up both ends of the practice issue at once. They solve, for the beginner, the problem of having nothing to really hang on to in the beginning. This practice doesn't feel like anything at first to beginners, "because they have not yet become familiar with the map that will lead them to their destinations." The map is filled in by all the internal awareness you cultivate over time.
The second thing this last section does is for experienced practitioners. They lay out the roadmap for continuous enjoyment and satisfaction from the practice. Every day, you will feel more comfortable and alive from your practice.
The next chapter gets into the details of how you actually use the Tai Chi body mechanics to change your body and your mind through practice:
CHAPTER FOUR: GUIDELINES FOR PRACTICE
The Taiji Boxing movements are usually called "practicing the solo set" or "winding through the solo set". They need a space of merely ten feet by ten feet, and so can easily be practiced by busy people. It is best to practice a couple times both in the morning and evening, each time for about fifteen to thirty minutes, and this will easily gain you the effects of health and longevity. If you want at the same time to learn the skills of application, then each day you can practice pushing hands, for while the solo set is the foundation, pushing hands is the function. Pushing hands necessitates two people practicing together, and this will be described in a future volume.
The solo set is the thing to train first, and for that you must concentrate on the points listed below:
A feature of Taiji Boxing is that it cultivates both body and mind, therefore its practice method is different from other boxing arts in that you must build yourself up in the dual aspects of the body and the spirit. Here are [four] principles for the body:
1. FORCELESSLY ROUSE STRENGTH AT THE HEADTOP
"Strength at the headtop" means your head is upright. The idea is that there seems to be strength passing through to your headtop. Your head controls your body, and when your head is upright, spirit can be activated. However, within making your head upright, there should be an intention of forcelessly rousing it to be so (i.e. without effort), and then it will be correct. The Thirteen Dynamics Song says: "The whole body will be nimble and the headtop will be pulled up as if suspended." This is exactly the idea.
2. CONTAIN THE CHEST & PLUCK UP THE BACK
To "contain the chest" means your chest is slightly shrugged inward, causing your diaphragm to lower, which helps energy sink to your elixir field. To "pluck up the back" means your back is slightly bulged outward, causing your spine to straighten, which helps power issue from your back. [Keep in mind this is not advice to do an impersonation of a hunchbacked Igor, it is intended merely to counteract any habit you might have of sticking out your chest and pinching your shoulderblades together.]
3. LOOSEN THE WAIST & LOWER THE BUTTOCKS
To "loosen the waist" means to get your waist to be relaxed. The turnings and transformations in Taiji Boxing all come from the waist, and thus it is said [in the Thirteen Dynamics Song] that the "command comes from the lower back". When your waist is loosened, not only will energy more easily sink and turnings be nimble, but also your lower body will gain power, keeping you from the error of being top-heavy. To "lower the buttocks" means to get your buttocks to hang down rather than stick out. Whenever you squat your body down, you should pay attention to this, so that it does not result in the loosening of your waist being obstructed.
4. SINK THE SHOULDERS & DROP THE ELBOWS
If you do not sink your shoulders, your chest and ribs will rise and become constricted, and energy will reverse upwards. If you do not drop your elbows, power will be unable to extend and also your ribs will be unguarded.
The four items above all emphasize naturalness in our bodies, avoiding a restricted bearing, getting the whole body to relax, and thus we can be nimble and adaptive, rounded and natural. As for the other aspect, developing the spirit, there are these couple of pointers:
1. MOVE PURELY BY WAY OF INTENTION
What is to be most avoided in Taiji Boxing is the use of exertion. In each movement there must be intention coursing through. If the movement is guided by energy, then when the hands rise, they do not do so of their own volition, but because intention causes them to go up. If the intention does not stop, the hands do not stop, but if the intention stops, the hands immediately stop. As time goes by, you will be able to develop a kind of visualized power, and it will be as it is said [in Understanding How to Practice]: "Use the mind to move energy… Use energy to move the body." This is the subtlety of our minds controlling our bodies. If you can understand this theory and can understand not to rashly exert yourself, then in regards to your everyday practice, you will both constantly improve and never get bored.
2. POSTURE & SPIRIT ARE MERGED INTO ONE
Taiji training is all about the spirit. Therefore when you practice the solo set, the spirit must rise, causing a seamless unity between it and the movement of your body, thus enabling enhanced sensitivity and nimble movement.
These last two points are so simple, and so straightforward, but they capture "how to practice" so perfectly. We're lucky to have translations like this from masters who spent their lives cultivating Tai Chi practice and were generous enough to take time to articulate what they learned so well.