But it is possible that Taiji never leaves Wuji and Wuji is always present in every movement.
Taijiquan as a “martial art” is essentially an art of being aware of one’s self in time and moving from a place of stillness, maintaining it in the midst of movement. I understand this place of stillness as “Wuji,” which has many definitions among various philosophical sources: “state of undifferentiated (non)being,” “standing like a mountain,” “unselfconscious oneness,” “empty, yet alive, changeable, agile, quiet.”
“Taiji is born out of Wuji,” the classic states, and it returns to Wuji. Taiji is movement, wuji is empty and still. It is infinity, where one returns to one’s self. Stillness to movement to stillness…. Yin to Yang to Yin and so on. This suggests leaving and returning. Too often we leave and neglect to return. But it is possible that Taiji never leaves Wuji and Wuji is always present in every movement. This is stillness in movement. Your awareness never leaves Wuji even while your body flows in and out of Yin and Yang.
This is the tenth year of blogging about taijiquan and its mysteries. Nearly 400 posts read by readers in 74 countries. Amazing. The first post on December 5, 2011 was entitled “What is Tai Chi?” Of course, tai chi is many things to many people and articulating that from the perspective of my experience has been an engaging practice. I almost quit, but I haven’t. The urge to write just happens. Like with tai chi, through the mind clutter comes insight. Like tai chi, writing extends awareness beyond self and allows you to reap knowledge sowed by efforts to learn.
By practicing taijiquan, if you wish to exceed limitations, you learn to eschew cliché and convention. Similarly, word-crafting helps to clarify the view and helps others discover and organize their own views. In my case, taijiquan and qigong have been the focal point; but it could also be other forms, such as yoga, dance, and athletics, like running, skiing, swimming, bicycling, and so on.
When you’re at your best, you’re in nearly perfect yin and yang balance, the essential dynamic of taijiquan. Without perceiving these two points of taiji, you’re wouldn’t quite be doing taiji—the supreme ultimate expression of anything. In my mind, the greatest yogi is doing taiji—expressing the ultimate expression, manifesting it, giving it form and substance. As is the most masterful practitioner of internal martial arts that originated in China.
Five years ago, I shared an invocation, which I revised and share again here.
In your practice, you have to be ready to see something you’ve never seen before, to do something you’ve never done before, to feel something you’ve never felt before, to not get too surprised or overwhelmed by whatever may knock you off your course, or cause you to lose the concentration that got you where you are. You have to be ready for what you want; what you do this for.
The microcosmic orbit (小周天), or small circuit, is a rather simple and easy breathing exercise for meditation and concentration to cultivate the flow of qi along particular energy paths in the body.
By Paul T Richard
I used to lead a simplified version of the microcosmic orbit meditation for circulating and filling qi. Also called the small heavenly circulation (小周天, xiao zhou tian), it seemed to help beginners cultivate a calmer physical and more-focused mental state.
The practice entailed guiding the breath and attention up the back (Du Mai-Governing vessel), then down the front side (Ren Mai-Conception vessel). Touching the tongue to the top palate behind the teeth connected the two paths. This direction up the back and down the front is called the “Fire Path.”
We would focus attention on moving from one to the next of eight vessels, or reservoirs, located along the Du and Ren, and fill each with breath and intention before moving to the next. The reservoirs are: dantian (navel area), perineum, sacrum/tailbone, between shoulder blades, back of neck, crown of head, between the eyebrows, solar plexus.
This in-class practice was rather simplified I suppose, but it seemed easier for beginners essentially seeking relief from daily strains. More-detailed discussions can be found in Yang, Jwing-Ming’s in-depth The Root of Chinese Qigong and Ken Cohen’s Way of Qigong, which is less intricate.
My aim in class was to reveal beneficial ways of thinking about how to perform the practice and the resulting feeling.
To this end, for good results, we wanted the sequence for moving up and down the channels to be fluid and free, without care for external concerns. This entails letting go or releasing attained by focusing on the task at hand, listening more closely to your natural self, and letting the activity have its results.
I say this because we might unconsciously hinder circulation of breath and blood, maybe even stop the energy from flowing. Sensations of crumpling, collapsing, or binding up point to resistance, or reluctance, to let go.
These physical results may stem from a mental position, or habitual frame of mind of which we are not cognizant. Often, qi itself may reveal that you’re holding on, or perhaps closing too much; both mentally and physically. An exercise like the microcosmic circuit helps to identify these tendencies, and allow us to replace the weak or immobile qi, and (re)connect body and mind in a reciprocal and balanced relation.
In application, since energetic force (qi) can flow linearly, you can adjust body position to affect its action. For example, as you sit and perform the microcosmic circuit, shift the hips slightly from whatever position you find them in, maybe tilt the pelvis down and forward, maybe up and back, then allow the resulting energetic pulse to rise up the spine as the vertebrae open and flex.
Qi can also fill expansively. For example, when the breath enters the sacrum you can direct that energy to fill, similarly to how the lungs fill with air, causing the sacrum to expand energetically. You may even feel aliveness in the smallest confines of the membrane.
These are subtle, unforced changes initiated in the mind’s eye that have physical results. Any subtle shift in position (postural alignment) could elicit qi to freely go through and you would feel it.
You can arrive at some clarity about the tendency to hold or clench out of unrecognized habit by trying these techniques. I know a few students became increasingly successful with their results by working consistently over time. Practice culminated in a clearer concentration that even spilled over into other activities of life.
I know that some in class came to recognize resistance in their selves from practicing the microcosmic circulation. Fighting against one’s own self is tiring physically and mentally. Sooner or later, you can’t ignore it anymore. But, consciously focusing on breathing in an exercise like the microcosmic circulation not only can reveal resistance, but also reveal the answer to it. Practice can improve the ability to intend useful shifts.
Sometimes our attention oscillates in and out of focus during the meditation. This reminds me of absentmindedly thinking about something or someone while performing some mundane task, such as pulling weeds, taking a walk, reading, or talking to another person.
Then, like waking from a dream, you suddenly realize you had been lost in reverie while your physical body was involved in some activity you barely noticed you were doing. “I don’t seem to realize I’m doing it and yet there I am doing it.”
This kind of waxing and waning of attention initially happens in meditative exercises such as the microcosmic orbit. It is like losing continuity in the flow. Attention breaks, like cutting a taut string, and wavers in and out of levels of awareness. This relates to the concepts of being connected and whole body moves as single unit.
You might discover in your efforts that qi and breath are blocked at the diaphragm. Instructors tell us to breathe “abdominally” during the microcosmic circuit, but the breathe abdominally instruction may be a little misleading.
From my observations, people think that it means to move only the abdomen/stomach. While it is a beginning, the motion should fill all of the lungs (without lifting the shoulders). The diaphragm can harden from constraining the breath to the abdomen, thus blocking air/qi from passing fully into the lungs.
I have just as often heard from high-level teachers to breathe naturally, which for me means to at least breathe freely and fluidly. This is more aligned with diaphragmatic breathing, in contrast to abdominally. The combination of breath with diaphragmatic movement (and abdomen) and breathing can soften the whole structure. Over time with correct practice you incorporate the eight reservoirs in whole-body movement with all the benefits of letting go.
“Single Basic Moves”
We also practiced “single basic moves”—rhythmic, repetitive motions that help to loosen tight spots and strengthen coordination and balance. We found them useful in class to support relaxation and which complemented the microcosmic circulation.
The microcosmic circulation is essentially an action of opening the areas from the inside out. In contrast, single basics affect the stuck areas from the outside in by moving the whole body; not as directly as with breathing and filling the eight reservoirs.
The microcosmic meditation and single basics combine to form an effective, complementary micro-practice through which you can wake up and feel the energy. This then feeds further practice and growth. Plus, these practices carry over into relief from mental and physical positions that are not essential to our well-being.
So, as least for a little while, the intentional act of letting something go (a thought or a physical feeling) is emancipating. The body responds accordingly conscious movement, and becomes more contented and rested. The mind becomes sharper and more satisfied in its ability to function more clearly.
If you experience recurring pain while practicing, a slight shift in your tai chi practice method may be all you need to affect a big change. For example, a closer alignment to the center may be all you need to relieve, or dissolve, pain.
Many have knee pain, which is often a sign of incorrect posture or incorrect usage. Chronic or acute, it doesn’t matter. Either we seem unable to track the hurt back to its origin (chronic), or it is (relatively) recent injury (acute).
Sometimes it is caused by practice itself. We don’t realize we are kinking the knee too far out (bow-legged), or too far in (knock-kneed). The arches may be too flat or too stretched up, as well; which suggests uneven foot pressure toward one side or another. These positions cause alignment to go out and often result in pain during and after practice.
Sometimes we just work too hard. In aerobic or resistance training, people often push themselves. While this has its value, doing tai chi that way may aggravate chronic issues that you want to alleviate.
The issue might be merely postural in origin, whether it be in muscle, tendon, ligament, or joint. If your structure is off just a little, you could over work and over strain that area.
Working to improve skills at detecting subtle postural changes while in motion—something more difficult to do in fast movements—could really help to discover new training possibilities. Sometimes you need to go easy on yourself to give yourself a chance to detect subtle changes. You may have to move more slowly and pay closer attention to finer degrees of movement.
Moving while being mindful of central equilibrium, or zhong ding, can highlight where your structure is out of balance. The solution could simply be a mere shifting one way or another. While practicing, you can ask yourself where you tend to pivot from—perhaps, feet, knee, thigh, hip—and see what subtle changes you can affect.
Picture a fulcrum at the core of your balance and movement. Dr. Susan Matthews has referred to this as a teeter-totter, or see-saw, idea; whereby a part of the body lies at the center point of a motion. You essentially move from or through that point, and return to it. Then to get a sense of alignment, or equilibrium, picture a line of such points moving in relation to each other.
This kind of attention to alignment may be just what you need to help find and fix those little spots that catch and hurt.
You can find lots of info on alignment in general on the Web from other disciplines and authors. I would just add the idea that many practitioners are unaware of how a greater depth of awareness and a simple, subtle shift in alignment can lead to relief from common hindrances in training like pain.
For other aspects of this subject, see the following posts.
Tai chi teachers hold a place for other learners who are unable to put in the time to maintain a regular practice. They hold the thought for when they return to practice and pick up where they left off.
Speaking of holding the thought, to build awareness in the practice of tai chi, look for something to work on or improve every time you do form. Remember to be aware of this each time you stand in wuji. Example: watch for a particular tension in body that you carry with you through the form. It may be a discomfort or even pain – in the knee, for example. Or maybe it’s a tension in the nape of the neck from leaning too far forward.
The next time you do form pay more attention to that issue and try to alleviate it. You could straighten the angle of the leg or raise the shen by elongating the spine and opening the solar plexus a little more than usual.
This is a zhong ding concept. Internal practice requires focus on the center line (zhong ding). Getting essential and beneficial alignment is key to free movement in the structure of the body. Proprioception will improve gradually, then exponentially.
Movement begins with mental focus. Place attention upon the space of interest and connect the dots.
Knees bend softly, never locked, flexible, changeable, not torqued, not tensed, not stressed or weighted upon. You must watch for these things, these states of being in motion and in stillness.
Sounds complex? Maybe it is, but with immersion it becomes less so. I am always amazed at how much awareness I can muster and how many activities of which I can stay cognizant while in motion.
At first, it is only one thing at a time. Beginners will focus on that. Then it is an ease of shifting focus from one thing, or even two things, at a time and maintain that focus. Maybe intermediate practitioners can do this fairly well.
Then, in advanced stages your view broadens and a whole symphonic movement evolves in unison, almost as if you are a spectator and conductor simultaneously.