Think of the head and the heart as yin and yang, and the artificially imposed distinction between two two suddenly melts away.
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.
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.
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.
In the latest tai chi video that Susan A. Matthews and I produced, my teacher Master George Xu talks about what he calls “universal yin yang,” the irreducible principle found everywhere. Wherever you examine how a thing works you will find yin-yang. This is a mystery for even those who accept the notion. You can’t really explain how it works, you can only accept that it does . . . . and that you can apply it in life; tai chi practice being an excellent way to do so.
I don’t talk about my videos much on this blog because I like talking about ideas, concepts and understandings. My teacher does, too. He talks in metaphors since he comes from Chinese traditions. It is useful to him, however, to rearticulate his knowledge in new metaphors for our benefit that reflect his understandings and our more contemporary minds. They present differently in English in contrast to Mandarin or Shanghaiese, as well.
The new video, entitled The Universal Principle of Yin-Yang in the Practice of Qigong, Baguazhang, and Xingyi Basics, is a 2-DVD set in three parts. Master Xu leads our group in many qigong sets, single drills, Bagua Dragon Palm (never before shared), and a comprehensive set of Xing-Yi single animal forms and variations. Even a beginner could get started by following along with the sets at home. You can use each as a standalone training video if you are a teacher, too.
Between practice sessions, Master Xu delineates practical applications of the yin-yang principle. Many concepts he had not publicized before and in several cases articulates them even more precisely than he had in past sessions. Master Xu explains yin-yang principles as they apply in dantian, qigong, spiral force, predator force, and earth power. The interplay between yin and yang applies to physical and energy, including Heavy/Light, Soft/Hard, Full/Empty, Inward/Outward, Left/Right, Up/Down, Front/Back, Feminine/Masculine, and so on. At the same time, yin is always infinitely contained within yang and yang within yin, and the resulting combined force that is created is superior power.
The yin-yang universal principle applies to all forms of martial arts in China, Master Xu explains. He says that of an estimated 300 styles of martial arts in China, all of their disciples are searching for the secrets. Many claim that theirs is the “best,” and Master Xu says that for him the taijiquan principle of yin-yang is the one concept that unites them all. The thread that weaves through all internal martial arts is that of yin-yang. If you understand this then you have the answer that many have sought for ages.