How to Practice Taichi for Substantial Improvements
By Chen Zhenglei
In recent years, on my tours in China and abroad, the question I was most asked by both Chinese and non-Chinese students is: How to practice taichi for substantial improvements? I will share my understanding in the next few points. I sincerely hope for comments and correction from other taichi teachers.
Like doing anything else, in order to understand how to practice taichi well, it is paramount to understand what taichi is. It is an important prerequisite to understand taichi from all aspects. Without a clear understanding, it is difficult to imagine that one can gain any substantial improvements.
Taichi was created by Chen Wangting, a ninth generation descendant of the Chen’s Family in Wen County Henan Province. Based on the family style boxing systems and by absorbing essence from other boxing systems, combining techniques of ancient energy systems such as Daoyin (internal energy manipulation) and Tuna (breathing exercises) as well as adopting theories from Yijing (The Book of Change) and the meridian doctrine of Chinese medicine, he created a boxing system that focuses on both the internal and the external training. The postures and moves are designed and structured according to biological principles as well as to the laws of nature. The main characteristics are continuous motions without hitches; interlaced fast and slow motions; incorporated hard and soft strengths; and relaxed, flexible, elastic and sometimes jerking moves. Taichi as a training system is supported by a set of mature and proven theories throughout the complete training processes. We can also look at taichi as a huge engineering system and the training to achieve substantial high level is definitely no easy task.
Based on teachings from the ancestors and what I’ve experience throughout years of training, I summarized the following training principles: Three Do’s and Three Don’ts
Do train for theory verification, don’t train for raw power;
Do train for fundamental roots, don’t train for external presentations;
Do train for substantiated abilities, don’t train for application tricks.
Do Train for Theory Verification, Don’t Train for Raw Power: “Theory” consists of philosophical foundations and basic principles about taichi. Practicing taichi is the process applying the ultimate Dao – the principles how Yang develops fully to generate Yin and Yin develops fully to generate Yang in the process of taichi yin and yang exchanges. Taichi practice requires the practitioner to imply hardness in softness and softness in hardness as well as to ensure inter-supportiveness between hardness and softness. One also must understand the interchange between emptiness and solidness. Emptiness when developed fully will generate solidness; and solidness when developed fully will generate emptiness. Practicing with mental concentration using the mind to guide the qi and the qi to guide the body in total mind-qi-body unity, one should aim to achieve completeness in motion, wholeness in synchronization and high level internal and external coordination. Follow the requirements closely and aim to move naturally. Exercise great patience without haste. Training for raw power can result in great increase of power in isolated parts of the body. This type of power is often clumsy and stiff, lacking the necessary smoothness and flexibility. Taichi practitioners do not aim to acquire raw power.
Do Train for Fundamental Roots, Don’t Train for External Presentations: “Fundamental Roots” refer to the original core (the original qi of the kidneys) and the base of the body. The kidneys house the original yin and yang energy. It is the prenatal source of energy and the root for postnatal energy. If the kidneys are fully sustained with qi, all other organs will have a better chance to be well sustained as well. Consequently, the liver, heart, spleen, lungs and kidneys all function the way they should. The practitioner will then have high spirit, ample physical strength, swift reactivity and better overall coordination. The abundance of internal qi is the first part of the fundamental roots. The second part of fundamental roots refers to the solid base of one’s postures. In taichi practice, on the basis of overall relaxation, accumulate the qi into Dantian and descend the qi further into Yongquan, so that the top portion is nimble, the middle section is agile and the base is solid like roots in soil. “External Presentations” refer to training mainly for power and toughness of isolated areas of the body. Taichi is an internal system with both the internal and external elements. The main focus should be on nurturing the internal energy – nourishing the roots and sustaining the source. “When the roots are nourished, branches and leaves flourish; when the source is sustained, the river runs long”.
Do Train for Substantiated Abilities, Don’t Train for Application Tricks: Substantiated abilities are overall martial skills acquired as general mental and physical abilities; while application tricks are offensive and defensive application techniques of individual moves. If the practitioner only focuses on application technique to explain and understand taichi, he/she will never get to the true essence of taichi. High level taichi training must include certain phases: gaining routine proficiency, correcting postures and moves and softening stiffness. As a result, the whole body is synchronized, the internal and external are coordinated, the internal qi is filled fully and substantiated abilities are gained on the body. Taichi as a martial arts training system focuses mainly on training the self overall abilities. It promotes skills to react to the opponent’s attacks and selflessly following the opponent’s moves according to ever changing situations instead of limiting to applications of individual moves. When the internal qi is full, the whole body is like a well inflated balloon. It reacts to wherever is in contact. Wherever is in contact, it can be used to attack. As the teaching goes: “When accomplished, one responds automatically to attacks; no need to ponder as the body reacts naturally”.
Establish Five Mindsets
Respect – cultivate high level ethics and morality. Respect your teachers. Renowned taichi master Chen Xin pointed out in his Illustrated Chen’s Taichi that: “Taichi cannot be learned without respect. Without respect, one would neglect his/her teachers and friends and as well as his/her own body. When the heart is not contained, how can one settle down to learn anything?”
Faith – faith consists of two aspects. Firstly, it is confidence, believing that one can succeed in taichi practice. Confidence is the source of self motivation. Secondly, it is trust, believing in taichi and the teacher; so that one will settle down whole heartedly with determination. Without trust, one will end up switching from system to system and teacher to teacher on a daily basis just like the old saying goes: “serving Qin at dawn and Chu by dusk”.
Determination – learning taichi requires determination. As Mencius said: the mind is the commander of internal energy. Only when one is determined, he/she will not be influenced by external interference. Only with determination, one can carry on to the final destination.
Perseverance – it means being persistent in taichi practice over a long period of time. It can be years or decades without slacking. Practicing by fits and starts or quitting with little achievements are bad habits to affect perseverance. Grand Master Chen Fake, 17th Chen’s family descendent, practiced his routines thirty times a day for decades without slacking. His taichi achievement was paramount and he was considered the best at the time. That’s how perseverance at work.
Patience – when all the above four mindsets are set, you’ll also need patience to achieve high level in taichi practice. On the one hand, taichi practice requires the practitioner to relax in postures, soften the body and slow down the moves. Without the correct understanding and mental preparation, it is impossible to relax and be patiently at ease. When one becomes impatient in taichi practice, it’s like driving at high speed heading the opposite direction. On the other hand, taichi practicing is a long process for both the mind and the body and should not be rushed. Try overcome irritation and boredom. Keep a peaceful mind. Follow the rules and requirements. Nurture the grand and majestic qi in the process of routine practice to acquire graduate subtle change of the mind and body. When the water comes, it will naturally form an aqueduct.
Three Essential Factors
The three essential factors are: a qualified teacher, innate talent and untiring diligence.
The most important factor to achieve high level taichi is a qualified teacher. As our ancestors said: A teacher is someone who passes on principles, teaches skills and clears up confusions. Be it for academics or martial arts, especially for taichi practice, the function of a teacher is the predetermining condition. So far, there is no precedent of an achieved taichi practitioner who has done it without a teacher. However, one can practice taichi without a teacher for recreation purposes. In order to achieve high level in taichi, one must find a wise teacher who has a high moral and ethical standard, technically skillful, learned in theories and knows how to teach. A wise teacher can lead the students onto the right path so as to avoid detours and achieve twice the effect with half the work. Without a wise teacher, one might never reach the temple of taichi once he/she is heading the wrong direction.
Innate talent is the key factor for high level taichi achievements, especially for those who wish to be established. They must have the innate gift, great deductive reasoning and learning ability, quick mind as well as the ability to expand their understandings. Besides the guidance of a wise teacher, the subtlety of taichi must also be experience and pondered firsthand. It can only be taught intuitively, not because the teacher is holding back, but it is truly indescribable. It is only those who have the innate talent with great ability to comprehend who can truly understand the true essence of taichi and reach to higher level. For others, despite of a wise teacher and self diligence, will still have a hard time understanding the true essence and will only reach limited achievements. It is just as in academic studies, people have the same teachers and all try with similar efforts, but the result can be quite different. The difference is in the innate talent.
Diligence is the deciding factor for taichi practicing. To be successful, one must also work with untiring diligence besides the innate talent and teaching of a wise teacher. As it was stated in the ancestors’ teaching: “Only understanding and knowing the right methods is still not enough. It requires daily untiring diligence. Keep moving forward without stopping day in and day out. That’s how one can reach the destination eventually.” Don’t expect miracles and there is no shortcut. The only path to high level taichi is untiring diligence. Kungfu is acquired through practice and only untiring diligent practice will ensure substantiated kungfu on the body. Under the guidance of a wise teacher and by following the rules and requirements, one must exercise persistent effort to accumulate and nurture the internal kungfu in order to realize qualitative change through graduate quantitative change. Real comprehension is built on hard work. Enlightenment is triggered after a long process of accumulation. Instant enlightenment of the subtlety of taichi comes from persistent diligence. If one relies only on wits and cleverness and despises hard work, he/she will never understand the real essence of taichi and will always be wondering outside of temple of taichi.
Of course nothing is absolute. What I mentioned about is not cast in stone. Those factors have changing effects on each other. One strong element can improve other elements. For example, with correct understanding of the nature of taichi, it helps one to establish the right mindset. Some people may lack innate talent, but hard work can be supplementary to talent. Persistent untiring diligence goes a long way in the pursuit of true taichi essence. I hope this article can provide some clarity in the minds of some taichi enthusiasts regarding taichi practice.