Feng Zhiqiang was a famous Tai Chi Master from Beijing who was a major influence on my teacher Bruce Frantzis. Master Feng did some teaching in the West as well and we are fortunate to have access to a transcript of a 2001 workshop he taught in the Bay Area (thanks to the folks at SilkReeler.com for making this transcript available and thanks to Igor for sending it my way!).
Here he is in 1986 performing a Chen Style Form:
In the 2001 workshop, Master Feng gives some great advice about different dimensions of practicing Tai Chi and qigong. I think you'll find the advice relevant to your own practice. Throughout the interview Master Feng is humble about his incredible skill and what's more, you can really tell that he was still actively practicing and learning, not resting on his credentials as the Master.
Even here, when he's describing a training process, we learn that he's working on it:
Master Feng says, "... Gentle practice is more effective than forceful practice. Lengthening is better than contracting. It's not just a simple matter of health, it's also a very good stretching exercise."
To which his student replies, "Some of us may have noticed Grandmaster Feng has much longer arms than the rest of us. That's a result of practicing lengthening. Thirty years ago when we took a picture together, I noticed in the photograph that Master Feng's arm is about one finger longer than mine."
The master always keeps working!
I've pulled a series of quotes and questions and answers from the transcript that I found particularly helpful.
On Structure and Body Alignment for Tai Chi
Even when you are standing upright, your weight should only be on one leg. When you're standing you should be relaxed and have your weight shifting from one leg to the other, never stationary and fifty-fifty. But not too obvious, that looks too funny. Don't let it be visible to an observer, but you should shift your weight from one leg to the other. Same thing with the foot. When you are standing you should never tighten your foot, and you should also flex it gently. Never stay in one position. Practicing in a relaxed manner is better than tensing up.
On Whole-Body Coordination and Power
Curved line is better than straight line. Even when your limbs are lengthened, they should also be curved. The body is the same. It should never be too straight. There should always be a curve somewhere. The Taiji body has five bows [Verbal clarification from translator: as in "bow" and arrow]. One arm, the other arm — two bows. One leg, the other leg, and your spine - your body. So, five bows. There is a Taiji saying that "once the body has cultivated five bows, (and can express the spring-like power) there is no equal opponent under Heaven." [Demonstration] This is one bow as well. Curving the chest is also a bow. Only by practicing in a slow and lengthening manner, you can then cultivate the spring-like energy. Something with springiness is very strong. If you drop it, it will never break. But if you have something that is hard and brittle, when you drop it it will shatter. That's what the old martial arts masters would say. If your body has five bows and you have this spring-like power, you will have no equal opponent under Heaven. Practicing martial art, you should know the theory. Only by knowing the theory can you grasp the martial aspect of Taiji.
On Uncontrollable Shaking during Standing Qigong
In the Q&A section of the transcript, Master Feng gives some direct, and indirect, practice advice. The first question is about standing qigong. He is asked, "Basically, how should we stand? Any tips on standing? Some students have experienced interesting phenomena like uncontrollable shaking, whether that's good or bad, and whether we should do anything about it."
Master Feng starts off with what appears to be a very theoretical answer, but I found it to be a pretty accurate description of the "interesting phenomena."
Everyone, greetings. This is a good question. Standing posture is Wuji, [Translator note: as in "ultimate nothing"]. Standing posture is posture of Wuji. Wuji is the state before Heaven and Earth was formed, when everything was in the primordial soup, when yin and yang were not differentiated. Wuji is silence, not moving, is quiet, whereas Taiji, the name of our practice, is opposite. Even though it looks as if standing posture/standing meditation there's no movement, however inside, just like in the primordial soup, there's always something, there's always something moving. When the internal subtle movement suddenly reaches critical level, then there's a Big Bang. That's when the light stuff floats up and the heavy stuff sinks down. And those that floats up form the heaven, and things that condenses become the Earth. The Big Bang essentially causes Taiji to happen. Taiji is yin and yang, the interplay between yin and yang. Between the interplay of yin and yang, everything else in this world is born. Without Taiji there's nothing, there's not even us. Everything, all life forms. Plants, animals. Human being are at the top of the animal kingdom, we are spiritual beings. The relationship between Heaven, Human, and Earth is the three pillars of the universe. Basically, from Wuji, even though there's no apparent movement, there's always something happening internally. When the time is right, the universe is formed, and Taiji is born. Same thing when we're doing standing meditation. There's no apparent movement, but there's always a little subtle shift. And after you've been doing it for a while you could generate so much energy in your body that you'd just have to move, that's the time for you to start doing your form. Within Wuji, even though the external is without motion, inside there is the beating of the heart, the circulation of blood, the flowing of chi. So within the motionless external something is contained inside that is moving.
He continues with a very detailed cosmological description of the process of moving from Wu Ji to Tai Chi and beyond, which I won't add here. But then he returns to a very practical tip. I bolded the parts I thought were especially important:
Let's go back to the standing meditation and involuntary movement. Not everyone will experience it. Some people will experience different feelings, different sensations, when your qigong practice is up to a certain level. Movement is one of them. It's normal to move. However, do not seek movement for its own sake. The movement is a side effect. What we want to do is keep our attention, our intention, within our DanTien, and let the movement be. If the movement continues without bothering you, that's fine. But if it gets bigger and bigger, then you should use your will power, your mind, to tell it "look, just stop it; don't move." Usually that will take away or control the movement. However if the movement is so big that it's beyond your control, then it's time to stop. You should do the DanTien turning exercise, gathering all the Qi that is wandering about back into your DanTien, and stop doing QiGong. Some movements are actually good phenomena. However we should not seek the phenomena. We should just focus on practicing QiGong.
On Fitting Practice into Our Busy Lives
Finally, I love how he addressed the question about learning all these forms and exercises, but not having enough time each day to practice them. If you follow his rules for practicing on limited time, you'll definitely turn even a few minutes into high-quality practice:
If we have limited time, what should we do on a daily basis? You should at least cover two things: One is qigong, as many movements as you can do, and then the 24-form. However if you don't even have time to cover those two things, what you can do is, put the 24 aside and concentrate on a subset of qigong exercises. And those examples he was showing us, "Heaven open, Earth close," or "Earth open, Heaven close," that's one. Or "double hand open-close," that's another one. So if you do those, that's ok. But you need to do more than nine repetitions if you just want to do one thing. And he's suggesting a few hundred repetitions. At least a hundred times or two hundred times. He's saying that because qigong is the foundation, is the core of our practice, if you don't have time for anything else, then do the core. However, it's best that you try to put aside at least an hour a day to do qigong as well as the 24.
So there you have it, practice advice from a Master.
Sadly, last spring, Master Feng passed away. You can read more about him in this tribute from Bruce Frantzis.