Originally published in the October 1998 edition of Inside Kung-Fu magazine
The traditional training methods of tai chi are slowly becoming extinct. These days, many instructors are teaching either great form and no application, average form and some questionable application, or altogether poor form and incorrect application. The rarest few are those who teach both proper form and function.
This situation is due to a number of factors which all students should clearly understand. Otherwise, you may not know what you're missing. One contributor is the fact that many people learn tai chi purely for health reasons. These individuals typically begin their training either to recover from an illness or simply to maintain physical (or mental/ spiritual) fitness. With this outlook, the practitioner is unlikely to take the time to learn the proper fundamentals.
Also, people who undertake serious training in tai chi as a martial art are exceedingly rare. The fundamental training exercises (ji ben gong) are not the stereotypical effortless exercises often associated with tai chi. Because so much noise has been made about the differences between internal and external styles (nei, wai jia), many people fail to understand that real tai chi incorporates training exercises that would be labelled "hard style" and are physically quite challenging at the deeper levels. Many students also fail to realize that the deciding factor in whether or not one is doing tai chi is not the speed, but rather the embodiment of sung (suppleness) as well as other key characteristics.
These misunderstandings make it difficult for students to find teachers who understand tai chi training to such depth, and make it even harder for those serious teachers to acquire students who know what they're looking for in tai chi. The truth is that many people like the idea of doing martial arts, but almost nobody wants to put in the thorough effort it takes to really understand the art on all levels: beginning, intermediate, and advanced, as well as physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and cultural.
Perhaps the first and most important step in tai chi training, after finding a teacher who's a master in skill and not just in name, is zhuang gong, or standing skill. Before a student can begin the form, it is imperative to learn how to stand correctly. Without the correct physical framework, a practitioner's tai chi is fragile, unstable, and incomplete.
The proper stance (ping xing bu) is more than just having the two feet parallel and knees slightly bent. The pelvis must be tucked in under the torso, while the spinal column remains vertical to the ground. This also bends the knees to their proper depth. The head must then rest on top of the neck, with the chin sunken slightly to prevent the head from tilting backward. This assemblage, in turn, must rest vertically on top of the shoulders and the torso.
This gives the body the proper structure for the chi, or internal energy, to sink down to the dan tian, or lower abdomen region. Thus, proper standing technique becomes a kind of zhan zhuang - a standing meditation chi kung exercise in which students learn to feel their chi circulate inside while they are standing still. The effect is stillness in movement and movement in stillness.
After a student has learned zhuang gong, the next order is to begin learning the form. In this step, the student must first learn all the stances of the movements, as a continuation to the zhuang gong training. The front and back stances (gong bu, xu bu), in addition to more advanced stances such as the drop stance (pu bu) and one-legged stance (du li bu), are practiced by learning the form. The student must bring the hands, eyes, body, and footwork (shoo, van, shen, fa, bu) together with proper theory or method.
Here, the concept of body unity comes into play, teaching the student to coordinate the stance, hips, and torso in one focused movement. This body-unity training focuses the body's power by teaching the body to begin and end each movement at the same time, just as the light through a magnifying glass comes together at one point. To accomplish this unity, it is critical to clearly understand which parts of the body are empty or full, and when. That is so that you can distribute your weight, chi, and intention (yi) to the appropriate parts. For example, doing the "white crane spreads its wings" posture without placing all the weight on the back foot constitutes poor form, which leads to poor function. Another key point often overlooked is what is called wai son he, nei san he, which means "three external and three internal harmonies." The three external harmonies are:
An example is the movement for "Single Whip": Taking as the starting point the body balanced over the right foot and limbs close to the body, the first principle of wei san he, that of hand-foot harmony, applies when the right-hand crane's beak and left foot go out together, allowing the body to counterbalance itself as well as teaching proper self-timing. (Another example is the ending form after the "raise hands" movement, which requires elbow-knee and hand-foot alignment on the lead side.)
Self-timing is important because one most know where the parts of the body are every stage to avoid fumbling in close spaces. The second of the three external harmonies in "Single Whip" applies at the completion of the movement, in which the elbow and knee should be vertically aligned on the left side.
As provided in the third of the external harmonies, the shoulder and hip should never be out of line with one another, as that would tighten the muscles in the back unnecessarily and dissipate power from the legs to the hands.
The nei son he, or "three internal harmonies," come next. They are:
These all come into tight focus when you apply tai chi in fighting. The mind and intention are not one and the same, as most would assume. The mind must focus its intention on whatever part of the body is being used as a weapon at that time (e.g., the left arm of the "single whip," or the foot during the "separation kick"). This focused intention calls the chi to the weapon in use. Thus, the saying "Where the yi goes, the chi will follow." With proper chi direction, the student gains the ability to exert force (li) out of the body and into the target, uniting energy and force.
The student must also learn the three main sections of the body: arms, legs, and body proper. Each of these sections can be further divided into three subsections: the arms into the hand, forearm, and upper arm; the legs into the foot, lower leg (shin), and upper leg (thigh); and the body into the head, chest, and abdomen. Each of these nine subsections has two terminals, the root and the tip. Every root and every tip has a purpose in fighting, and the power is expressed when each of these nine sections learns to move independently but together in harmony.