Tai chi offers an opportunity to look beyond the surface. To see not only what a practitioner is doing on the outside but deeper on the inside. Not usually an immediately obvious for a beginner. You have to develop skill to look within the other and yourself. It takes practice to see the depth of a practice. From where does movement originate? What is the underlying intention? What is nature and quality of the Qi (energy)?
Tai Chi and life force
Tai chi is the last chance exercise for those of us who didn’t get it right before. Perhaps tai chi is an end in itself, but sometimes a practice can teach you about others things in life that manifest in the motions of everyday living. Tai chi is not complete unless it is part of the daily practice of living. A tai chi life is not too fast, not too slow; not against and not run away; the parts are aware of the whole and the whole is aware of the parts. Bones conform with each other. Bones, joints, ligaments and tendons align with each other. You are relaxed and in the new place where everything feels just right. You are cultivating life force itself rather than just letting whatever come along and present itself and then react to it. Etched into our beings are channels for energy to flow. It pulses, buzzes, hums, beats in rhythmic cadence. Not static but alive.
Getting Original Qi Back
When I talk about my teachers having so much energy from taiji, it has to do a lot with the fact that they save energy more than actually producing it out of nowhere, which seems impossible to the average person. This is one thing every practitioner who practices long enough learns about taijiquan. It’s true, you get only so much Qi (energy) when you’re born and as life progresses you lose it, or at least, lose access to it. But you can get it back, and one stepping stone to do that is by learning to conserve it, not waste it, use the energy you have wisely, and consciously bringing stuck qi back into availability. By doing taiji movement, you clear out superfluous energy, which in turn attracts your original qi and rebuilds it. It’s fantastic to reunite with what is essentially a part of ourselves.
Tai Chi movement, qi and yin-yang equilibrium
The word Qi (pronounced “chee”) in Chinese refers to vital energy and is found everywhere in nature. The Chinese refer to Heaven Qi, Earth Qi, and Human Qi. In learning tai chi, when we talk about Qi, we often talk about Yin and Yang— two opposing, but complementary, forces that are seen in endless variations. Taijiquan and Qigong are activities that you could think of as exercises, or methods, for working towards a balance of yin and yang in the relationship between our minds, qi, and bodies. I lead tai chi practice with these relationships in mind.
According to Chinese thought some of us are too yang, some too yin, generally speaking. The movements introduced in practice can help balance out your Qi whether you are too yin or too yang.
You can be both at the same time, as well. Too yang in some aspects and too yin in others. For example, you may be too yang in your Qi and too yin in your physical body. As Yang, Jwing-Ming writes in The Root of Chinese Qigong, “A person who seems to be externally strong and healthy may be weak internally” (p4).
Either case can result in the whole being being weakened. Most of what I teach focuses on both external and internal exercise with mental concentration, or mind practice. You’ve probably heard of mind-body connection. I try to bridge the mind and body with what is often the missing link in rebalancing one’s being—vital energy. I truly believe that the motivation to learn and practice tai chi comes from feeling the need to rebalance your energetic configuration. It’s marvelous that tai chi movement performed with mind intention can result in profound shifts in mental, energetic, and physical equilibrium.
A Basic Tip
The mind, energy and body interact in a sequence of movement. Your attention travels from mind, to energy, to physical in that order. It works this way: You focus attention on a specific point in the body, which invites the energy to go there. You actually feel it. Then the body is invited to move in the way that you intend. So you allow it to move. Over time, you refine this progression to build inner strength and skill.
How this happens is a kind of mystery to me, but it happens. You may not detect the sequence at first as a beginning practitioner, especially the feeling of energy flowing to a place where you direct your attention. You will with practice, but I think everyone is familiar with it very quickly.
Energy and the role of the body in tai chi
My teacher, George Xu, says to “think” energy moving through the body. Part of my understanding of this matches his instructions, but I go beyond the literal meaning of his words. For example, I “feel” the energy moving as though that were thinking. I “think-feel” or “feel-think”. From my training with my teachers and readings from other traditions, I’ve come to apply the term “perception” to refer to this. I perceive a sucking up and sinking down, qi flowing and energy moving. This term is more encompassing, and I believe, a more accurate description of the phenomena.
A Buddhist might call this “bare attention,” but that may not be entirely accurate for all I know, which is very little.
The role of the physical body in this dynamic may be a sticking point. On one hand, the body must get out of the way for the energy to move it. The mind must intend it. You have to consciously instigate letting go. It can take years of practice to achieve incremental progress, but when it happens it can happen suddenly, effortlessly. Kind of surprising.
It doesn’t have to take long before you experience this letting go. You may be just starting out in your practice, but it can happen. The speed at which the internal arts are developing in the West makes the possibility of real individual progress greater, in my view. It will remain a life-long practice for most, but we can achieve greater, deeper understanding much sooner than in past decades when this information was new and rather foreign to our minds.
Master George says to “suck” energy up through the legs, which triggers a complementary (“reactionary”) sinking of, or yin, of energy from the top downward. This is what takes the opponent’s force to Earth. He also would say that the muscles of the calves change as a result of this “thinking.” At the end of a five-day training this past autumn he began giving us pointers for the physical body and how to use it to achieve his internal and “spiritual” work, which had been the full focus of his teaching for the previous four or so days. For him the internal, or (Qi/Chi) and spiritual (Shen) practices are the true offerings of Chinese martial arts and where power comes from.
The question of how Qi moves, and moves through, the body captures the attention of many as being key to the ultimate evolution of understanding. To resolve this issue would move any practitioner much further along in his or her learning journey.
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