Notes from practicing “peng” and a stimulating conversation

I used to assume that we westerners prefer explanations as we learn tai chi. In contrast, in China, teachers might not explain anything at all. However, explanations, or descriptions, are not as defined culturally as an individual preference, I think. We learn by listening to explanations and by doing.

We had a productive practice Saturday outdoors that, for me, revealed many things about this idea of learning and doing tai chi. To learn more deeply by doing tai chi, I believe. However, some explanation can be useful at the right time and place.

At one point in practice, a comment from me triggered a robust conversation (descriptions) and some good practice (doing). We were doing some two-person testing of brush knee.

I said that women are fun to work with because they are not trying to prove something to anyone, except themselves, maybe. They’re there to learn, experience, see what the potential is. More like curiosity.

Men learners, on the other had, more often must prove something to someone else. They are less inclined to prove it for themselves alone. For example, in two-person practice if I “peng” the other person, the hoped-for response is to yield (yin) at the point of contact, then yang from another quarter. Often, men tighten up and resist yang with yang, which hinders your freedom to move…to say the least. Push hands turns into who’s the strongest.

It’s also a sign that you are not able, nor, perhaps, willing, to let go of your preconceptions about two-person interaction. Whether for fun in tai chi class or in real life struggles the goal is to learn “yin-yang”: when to yin, when to yang, and when not to.

One person jokingly said, “You mean, you’re saying we need to get in touch with our feminine side?”

I don’t recall my reply in that moment, but I would have agreed with the idea that we should connect our yin side with our yang side in such a way that one doesn’t overpower the other and they work together harmoniously. Also, work with another person’s yin and yang energy in a similar manner.

I tried to articulate that tai chi is an exercise of shifting perspective to see perceptual bias underlying your actions. What is motivating you to do a move? The underlying attitude? What is the self-image and the intent behind the posture, or technique, or pattern of movement?

We were talking about “peng” or “full”, which is to fill with energy. I likened it to filling with qi at the center and expand it to the extremities, filling feet and hands. You could also view peng as projecting the view outwardly, encasing the body in a energy sphere.

We then did a couple of single-basic moves and explored relaxing the shoulder without collapsing and not tensing it as much as we were able, then tried to fill the whole body with energy and expand outward in peng.

We found two dilemmas: one was we couldn’t fill enough and expand and we sort of petered out. A more effective way would be to expand a sphere of energy beyond the body so physical movement would take place within that ball of energy. This is one way to view peng in an energetic sense.

The other is we would go immediately to “jing,” meaning we tighten muscles and lock up the body and try to overpower the other person physically, or at least stop them from attacking. We break through any energy sphere we might have developed in this case.

These responses signal that we don’t know what we’re doing. So I say that the goal is to know what you want to do in your practice and how to do it. This concept lies at the core. Don’t do just anything because you feel pressure to do something.

I also suggested that you have to do the moves repetitively and rhythmically in order to train the mind to shift more freely when in solo practice or two-person. This practice helps to develop power, too.

For now, we could just focus on filling a part of the body and allowing qi to flow through to other areas. You can breathe into the dantian, or lower back, or jade pillow, for example, and try to feel for it growing beyond into adjacent areas and ultimately everywhere, to toes and fingers.


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