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Martial Progress in Tai Chi: Using Yin Yang Theory to Gauge our Development

Learning to “relax” can be charged with frustration and is a suggestion that is often seen as a criticism.  It is time to view it in its intended light:  your relaxation charts your progress.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When we’re starting out practicing tai chi we often think we are soft and relaxed when we’re actually pretty far from it.  This can be frustrating on a number of levels.  First of all, who am I (or your teacher) to tell you that you are not relaxed when your body is giving you every indication that you are?  Secondly, what is the value of a teacher pointing out this error continually which seems to undermine progress?

 Fact 1:   Your body and mind can tell you two different things.

The idea of being told to do something when you thought you already were, can be seen in many areas of taichi.  You are standing in a posture, in relaxed la-la land and your instructor tells you to relax.  What did he think you were doing!  You are performing a move slowly, i.e. Matrix style, and your instructor tells you to slow down.  You tell a student to hold a “deep” horse stance for 90 seconds and counsel them to stop rising up.  They look perturbed.  You place them back in a horse stance under a shelf and they bonk their head.  They are stupefied that they were moving.  How are these diametrically opposed situations possible?  Because emotions such as performance anxiety or the pain from the deep stance sends messages to the brain to improve the situation, while not letting you in on the process.  This is a good thing.  This function is inhibited in depressed people.

And now we start to see some of the efficient beauty of taichi.  Tai chi allows us to step outside of our body’s box and wake up to autonomic processes so that we can actively control them.  By waking up to this trickery we can make minute changes and begin to enjoy progress.

 Fact 2:  Progress has to be from hard to soft

We need to stop beating ourselves up for not being “relaxed.”  It is not a normal state for nearly everyone.   Even if you are that laidback person you dream you are, taichi is building a relaxation that is not achievable without training.  This is the magical relaxation that stumps doctors because it heals.  This is the relaxation that is normally only found on vacation.  However, in this case it is free and can happen in your backyard.

Yin Yang Theory and Monitoring Progress in Tai Chi

Here is an older article from Chen XiaowangYin Yang Theory that covers the progress made from continual practice.  But first, let me say that it took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that the progression is going to be from hard to soft.  From “external” to “internal.”  Yin Yang Theory gives us a paradigm where we can gave our progress incrementally.  First 90/10, then 80/20 etc. until we become more balanced in power and form.  This is the classical way in taichi and it’s probably just a reality.

 Level 1

They may not have mastered the application but by knowing how to mislead his opponent the student may occasionally be able to throw off his opponent.  Even then, he may be unable to maintain his own balance. Such a situation is thus termed “the 10% yin and 90% yang; top heavy staff”.

Level 2

One may be able to move and ward off an attack but may easily commit errors like throwing-off or collapsing and over-exerting or confronting force. Because of these, during push-hands, one cannot move according to the sequence of warding-off, grabbing, pressing and pushing down. A person with this level of skill is described as ‘20% yin, 80% yang: an undisciplined new hand.’

Level 3

Even in leading-in and expelling-out the opponent, one [may] feel stiff and much effort is required. As such the skill at this stage is described as ‘30% yin, 70% yang, still on the hard side.’

Level 4

On contact with the opponent, one can immediately change one’s action and thus dissolve the on-coming force with ease, exhibiting the special characteristics of going along with the movements of the opponent but yet changing one’s own actions all the time to counteract the opponent’s action, exerting the right force, adjusting internally, predicting the opponent’s intention, subduing one’s own actions, expressing precise force and hitting the target accurately. Therefore, a person attaining this level of kung fu is described as ‘40% yin, 60% yang; akin to a good practitioner.’

Yin Yang TheoryLevel 5

As regarding the martial skill, at this level the gang (hard) should complement the rou (soft), it (the form) should be relaxed, dynamic, springy and lively. Every move and every motionless instant is in accordance with taichi principle, as are the movements of the whole body. This means that every part of the body should be very sensitive and quick to react when the need arises. So much so that every part of the body can act as a fist to attack whenever is in contact with the opponent’s body. There should also be constant interchange between expressing and conserving of force and the stance should be firm as though supported from all sides.

The description for this level of kung fu is that it is the ‘only one that plays with 50% yin and 50% yang, without any bias towards yin or yang, and the person who can do this is termed a good master. A good master makes every move according to the taichi principles which demands that every move be invisible.’

Here is the take-home message

At the uppermost level of development we land at and even 50/50 split between hard and soft.  On one hand this illustrates how hard (yang/unrelaxed) we all probably are at the beginning of training.  On the other hand, it defines what soft really means.  Softness is the ability to conceal and maintain the potential of a significant force.   It is not the weak, flabby softness out on the end of the soft-to-hard spectrum.

By continual work on softness and relaxation we are simultaneously achieving the health and mental benefits from “relaxation” and building up true internal power.   Any time that we find a singular focus that results in multiple benefits we know we are participating in a great and natural process.

The Five Levels of Development in Tai Chi

Anyone who has made tangible progress in the martial arts has learned a set of movements and then made discoveries by working independently. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In a conversation with a friend who is a long time practitioner of Japanese martial arts I was envious at the structure that was imbued into the different levels of progress.  They have very defined levels which are defined by specific curriculum, vocabulary, knowledge, performance expectations, and even visible uniform upgrades.  What do the Chinese systems have? (crickets).  There are some schools that have tried to implement belt-systems or sashes or name walls but none of this has gotten any traction and often just looks gimmicky.

Development in Tai ChiI am not advocating that the Chinese systems codify their progress here.  The Chinese-stylist would defend their structure (or lack of) in the following way: By putting a structure in place or by identifying a single, all-talented teacher, you immediately put a ceiling on your progress.  Anyone who has achieved a level of development in tai chi has learned a set of movements and then made discoveries by working independently. This is not an indictment on the Japanese or Korean systems.  They have their own lineage of tinkering and making gains.  When I cross-train with individuals I find that many have dabbled in multiple martial arts and have landed in their art of choice largely due to availability and personality.

So yes I feel that there are distinct advantages to progressing by being in a non-codified system.  However, that doesn’t mean that a new or old person couldn’t benefit from seeing the long road so that they know which direction they are traveling.

In the Chinese systems, the path you are taking is largely due to what you defining.

The beauty of Tai Chi is that it is 1) attractive to people with different interests such as health, martial arts, or history and 2) on the same token allows you to study the same thing for multiple decades as your interests change.

Development in Tai ChiHere is an example:  B.K. Frantzis writes prolifically on the use of Tai Chi in martial development.  So when asked “What are the stages of learning tai chi?”  Here is his answer taken from this EnergyArts.com article.

Stage 1:  Form Work (Long or Short Form)

Stage 2: Taichi Pushhands or Tui Shou

Stage 3:  Transition Methods between Push Hands and Sparing

Stage 4:  Sparing and Actual Sparring

It is decidedly slanted toward martial attainment.  It is a very nice article if you are interested in a full explanation of each stage.

Five Levels of Development in Tai Chi

Learning taijiquan is in principle similar to educating oneself; progressing from primary to university level, where one gradually gathers more and more knowledge. Without the foundation from primary and secondary education, one will not be able to follow the courses at university level.  Chen Xiao Wang

There is a tangible sequence to understand and truly follow to make progress in Tai Chi.   5 levels have been laid out for us that can be applied to any finite or global pursuit.  This means that B.K. Frantzis’s explanation above incorporates these ideas and that we can take these ideas and apply them to our own interests.  I will use an article translated for Chen Xiao Wang (CXW) and boil the principles down.  Understand that micro-actions, even 2 minutes of practice or standing each day, bring profound understanding of progress.  Just thinking about this intellectually can only get you so far.

The First Level: Requirements on the different parts of the body

The purpose: allows one’s energy to sink to the dan tien
This level is super easy to understand to execute.  CXW estimates that these basics can be achieved in 6 months.  For the novice this is encouragement to work steadily and for the avid practitioner this is motivation to reinvest some time in some weak points and get on our way. Here is your job:

Development in Tai Chi

  • keeping a straight body
  • keeping the head and neck erect with mindfulness
  • relaxing the shoulders and sinking the elbows
  • relaxing the chest and waist letting them sink down
  • relaxing the crotch and bending the knees
  • breathe naturally

Here is a breath of fresh air:  CXW says that a beginner at this level can be: “…not well coordinated and systematic…postures may not be correct…the force or jin produced may be stiff, broken, lax or on the other hand too strong.”  Sounds great! Let’s get the form down, let’s allow ourselves to stink at what we think is important because it is not yet important.

What Level 1 taught me:  Real life terms.

I never want these essays to be solely theoretical so let me share how taichi has positively affected my life.  At work I was super behind.  I had 7 products partially started and none were complete.  Psychologically I was beating myself up for not being done, them being imperfect.  What did I do?  I hammered through all 7 in 10 days, during working hours.  How different do you think my completed version was from a perfect version?  My boss was ecstatic and I was able to pass them off to colleagues to inject new motivation and put on the final touches.  4 months of cowering put to rest in 10 days!

The Second Level: Feel the movement of internal energy

The purpose: to ensure that the internal energy/qi will move systematically in the body in accordance with the requirements of each movement.

Ok, deep breath.  You started this tai chi thing to feel this internal energy.  Oh but it is illusive.  Oh but I can’t feel it.  Bull.  Chances are you couldn’t sense it because you weren’t aligned or attune.  You just took care of that by learning the form.  You can only concentrate on specific movements because you are not overwhelmed by remembering the choreography.

At this level trust that things are flowing and that by making small improvements to the form you will increase the energy to the level that you can sense it.  Here is your job:

  • external closing/union of movement: closing of hands with legs, elbows with knees, shoulders with hips
  • relaxing shoulders and elbows, chest and waist as well as crotch and knees
  • use the waist as a pivot to move every part of the body
  • breathe naturally

What Level 2 taught me:  Real life terms.

I had been studying guitar for a while and could “play” a couple songs.  It is merely for fun and am not about to quit my day job so I hadn’t thought about refining a song past just learning the notes.  Then my teacher asked if I wanted to play at a Student Showcase Performance.  I agreed, the fear kicked in, and holy cow was I focused on improving the song I already knew.  I had a blast bringing the song up to performance level, played in front of a completely sympathetic crowd, and for the first time had someone say “Oh you play the guitar?” And for the first time I answered “yes.”  When I was fear-stricken on stage my body was acting before my mind (which was frozen) could.  “Oh you study tai chi?”  Focus on improvements and answer them “yes.”

The Third Level: Mastering the internal and external requirements

Purpose: improve the strength of internal qi and begin the coordination between muscle movements and the functioning of the internal organs

Here is your job:

  • synchronize actions with breathing quite precisely
  • be able to command the actions with more ease, not muscle
  • practice push-hands and weapons as an out-of-the-box experiment to practice your balance, posture, and force
  • check on the quality and quantity of the internal force.  Is their visible blood flow to your hands? Can you break into a sweat from standing meditation?  Can you feel heat in your palms?  If not, seek specific corrections on standing and qi gong.

What Level 3 taught me:  Real life terms.

Much of the focus of the third level has to do with dissolving conflict.  There is a third way that tai chi has taught me and it is simply to not respond.  So many times at work or with the kids, someone is in a bad mood or is acting clearly out of their own motivations.  I always contemplated my response as being for or against them or a choice between appeasing them or aggravating them further.   But what about doing nothing?  By putting some time between me and worker who “needed to talk” or a child that “needed” something, by the time I approached them on the subject they were completely confused because they had forgotten all about it, had moved on, or were embarrassed.

The Fourth Level: Expressing force

Purpose: exerting the right force, adjusting internally, predicting the opponent’s intention, subduing one’s own actions, and expressing precise force and hitting the target accurately.

Here is your job:

  • practice each movement as though you were confronting the opponent
  • each part of the body must move in a linked and continuous manner so that the whole body moves in unison.
  • Movements of the upper and lower body are related
  • there should be a continuous flow between movements

What Level 4 taught me:  Real life terms.

Force does not come from the buildup of strength or clout.  Each year my profession attends a conference and has a booth with varying degrees of success.  This last year was the most successful.  It was not because of the products we were selling or because of who was attending.  We worked hard to strip away everything that was non-essential and therefore had extremely positive engaging employees attend who focused on three applicable products.  It was a success because we aligned our force to have the greatest impact and left the conference feeling elated rather than exhausted.

The Fifth level:  Coordination and special relationships

Purpose: work hard day by day until the body is very flexible and adaptable to multi-faceted changes

The beauty of the fifth level is that it is very real to life.  We can never be sure of what will be thrown at us.  To conclude with the Japanese-Chinese metaphor that began this essay:  Tai chi is more about focusing on abilities that would hold up against the majority of attacks (internal strength, groundedness, awareness, posture) rather than practicing against precise attacks (punch with your right hand).  Here is your job:

  • the form should be relaxed, dynamic, springy and lively.
  • every move and every motionless instant is in accordance with taiji principle
  • every part of the body should be very sensitive and quick to react
  • there should also be constant interchange between expressing and conserving of force
  • the stance should be firm as though supported from all sides

 Summary:

As you can see, development is a natural progress from external to internal or from hard to soft.  That being said, we need to know that we cannot beat ourselves up along the way for being too external or hard.  That is the point.  We are too external and realizing this is probably what led us to study tai chi.

 

Why People Practice Tai Chi

Understanding why people practice tai chi is extremely important to our own development and to the development of classmates and students.

We posted a survey here for two months and collected information about why people practice tai chi.  There were many responses that were expected but there were tons more that were not.  The combined results create a unique picture of the many reasons why people practice tai chi.  For instructors, it is valuable information in what to include in curriculum to keep interest high.

What interests you most about studying Tai Chi?

As opposite as it would seem, learning martial applications and learning about meditative aspects were cited as being the most interesting to people studying tai chi.  Learning the tai chi form came in second which is good to highlight as an obtainable goal for new students.

Why People Practice Tai Chi

I am studying taichi or would like to because of which benefits?

Hands-down people are coming to tai chi because of its reputed health benefits.  Tai chi definitely can improve on most health issues especially those that are self-induced such as work related stressors and injuries.

Why People Practice Tai Chi

I found out about taichi because…

The internet and through friends are the chief way that people are finding tai chi classes.  We certainly see it on this website as people search for “ta chi + CITY.”     A lot of people come to tai chi with a friend but they almost always stop coming as pairs too.  This data is making us question how to alleviate people of their initial nervousness but identify their individual interests to keep them studying long enough to gain the benefits of tai chi. That inevitably is what keeps most people around.

Why People Practice Tai Chi

I practice/would like to practice taichi to…

This last graph in some ways is the most interesting as people were allowed to choose from a list or add their own ideas.  Here we see the wide variety of reasons why people practice tai chi.  Work/life improvements and healing of old injuries appear to be the top reasons cited.

Why People Practice Tai Chi

Want more information on why people practice tai chi?

Check out these links:

Basics – Tai Chi for Health

Tai chi: A gentle way to fight stress – Mayo Clinic

The health benefits of tai chi – Harvard Health

Ming-Men: An acupressure point with power-full implications

Increase energy and reduce stress by learning about this one acupuncture point.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ming-men refers to an energy center located in the lower torso that is so power-full that it is associated with three acupuncture points Governing Vessel 4 (Gv4), Conception Vessel 4 (Cv4) and Conception Vessel 5 (Cv5).  The Chinese admiration for the Ming-men is captured in the disagreement on how to describe it.  It has been called the Gate of Power, Proclamation Gate, Gate of Destiny, and Gate of Life. No matter how you define it, the healing ability and energy properties of the Mingmen abound.

Why is it important and why should I know about the Ming Men?

Do you have trouble sleeping?  Read on.  Want more energy?  Keep reading.  Are you interested in the explosive chi energy of the internal martial arts?  This article is for you.  The idea of a “gate” occurs in all translations and is probably the most suitable.  Whatever your health or martial goals are, accessing the Ming-men point is the place to start.

Many of us are familiar with the idea that martial and healing energy originate in the center of the body.  We may also have heard the words Dan Tien or Hara to describe this region. This central area, the Sea of Chi, is often referred to as the Dan Tien when actually it describes the Dan Tien and Ming Men collectively. As mentioned in the post on the three dan-tiens, there is more than one energy center and when referred to in general terms, the word “dantien” is used to describe the whole central region.

I am going to take a different tack here, one that is only different to westerners but not to the East.  Yes the Dan Tien and Ming Men can be talked about together.  If a student is just beginning to wrap her mind around the idea that energy/power come from the center then this is a later discussion.  However, independently the dantien and mingmen have different purposes and therefore different powers.  Simply put, knowing about both regions allows us to benefit from and increase the power of both.  I am confident in the intelligence of most practitioners and it is time for us to advance collectively.

Let’s start by finding it.  Then we will describe why it is so important.   We will end with simple practical ways to access the Ming Men and begin to reap its rewards.

 Where is the Ming-Men?Ming-Men

For locating Gv4 you need to feel your lower back right in the center or most shallow point of the curve.  It is located in the lower abdomen approximately two inches below the navel, and between the skin and the ventral surface of the spine.

That sounds like the DanTien!

Similarities

Both the Ming Men and the Dan Tien come into existence at birth.  They are both near the navel.  The region can be accessed collectively to build energy or collect energy from other areas of the body.

Differences

Dan Tien

Ming Men

Located two inches below the navel in the center of the body. Located two inches below the navel along the inside of the spine.
Represents post-natal energy Represents pre-natal energy
Yin Yang
Can act as a storage container to build up energy and send on to other meridian points Can act as a gate to allow energy in or out, and to blend opposing energies that are being produced by the kidneys

Why is the Ming Men Point Important?

I am going to dive into three rabbit holes here so bear with me. It will all be clear in a second.

Rabbit Hole #1:  Physiology

The Ming Men is found (read- accessed, remember the gate thing?) at acupuncture point B23 smack dab between both kidneys.  The kidneys are designed to filter and reprocess the blood.  Blood is the transit system for toxins and minerals so anything good or bad that you do affects the blood.  The kidneys effectively cleanse and rebalance the blood by staging toxins for waste elimination and sending the good stuff back into the veins.

Rabbit Hole #2:  Chinese Medical Theory

In Chinese medical theory balance equals health.  Each kidney is said to develop an opposing energy and it is between the two kidneys that these energies are blended.  Not just any energy but the essence of energy.  Think of it in terms of clay.  The kidneys develop a pure, recently cleansed, pure source of energy that can be molded into any form of energy.  The type of chi/energy that it becomes depends on your intention.

Rabbit Hole #3:  Metaphysics

Every good rabbit hole/metaphysics reference necessitates an Alice In Wonderland pun but I am going to completely let you down here.  When we get far out on the metaphysical ledge it is too easy to give up, think that we are not _______ (fill in the blank spiritual/connected/adept) enough to make tangible progress and just quit.  However, you can reap tangible benefits from knowing about the ming-men and here is how.  When we begin meditating or trying to concentrate we are plagued by a restless mind (Is it trash night?, my shoes are tight, I want coffee…).  Placing one’s attention on the lower back stops extraneous thoughts – false yang.  Metaphysically, the ming-men is the gate by which we enter no-thought and heighten our concentration.

 How do I develop energy in the Ming Men?

The first steps in developing this energy consist of focusing ones intention.  Mantak Chia in his book on the Microcosmic Orbit suggests taping something uncomfortable on acupuncture spots in the beginning to bring your mind to it.  Eventually you can bring your mind to the ming-men without the tape and acorn.  An additional way is to inhale into the belly while holding your abdominal muscles tight.  Force the air into the small of the back and imagine it emitting from a small opening in the spine.  I like this approach because this practice will eventually serve you when building the explosive power in fa-jin.

What are some practical uses of the Ming Men?

Work-life balance

Who hasn’t heard of or craved work-life balance?   This dichotomy is often misinterpreted as we are directed to take even more action to juggle our many obligations.  I do believe that this illusive work-life balance is attainable but by doing less.  Focusing on the center increases our enthusiasm for activities we enjoy, calms us in situations that are necessary but not necessarily enjoyable, and gives us a perspective to choose tasks that are actually important.  The result is a net gain in energy.   Try this:  the next time you are commuting or caught in traffic think about pushing each breath down to your lower back.  You will be refreshed, less stressed, and surprised when your exit comes so soon if you didn’t miss it entirely.

Creativity

Creative individuals are balanced.  Any experience that you have had where you are highly creative it is probable that you are outside of your own thoughts and drawing/writing/strumming without relationship to time or place.  The ming-men drains the brain and stops it from running interference.

Sleep

The ming men point is the one-two punch for sleeplessness.  When my daughter was little and unable to sleep I would splay my palm on the small of her back and sit and think about my own lower spine.  It was minutes before she would spasm and I knew she was diving off into fairy land.  It works on adults and yourself too.  Lay on your back with both palms resting on your navel.  Think about your ming-men.  If a work or stressful thought pops up, drag it down your spine and out the ming men.  Wake up!  I’m almost done.

What are some practice applications for Tai Chi?

Developing Power

The primary use of the ming-men in Ch’i-kung and Martial Arts is to develop power and energy.  Power originates in the kidneys and is transmitted throughout the body.  This is true if you are building up energy to heal or storing energy in your lower back to strike (fa-jin).

Grounding

Mobility of the lower back connects the upper body with your root or legs.  One needs to be grounded so that a true assessment of the situation is possible.

Adapting to New Situations

This is both a theoretical and a physical idea.  If you lower back is “soft” and responsive you can both transmit and receive blows by accessing the power of the legs.  The next time you are pushed back and locked in your stance, ask yourself if you lower back is soft or locked up.

Summary

Knowledge of the ming-men quickens our progress in mental, physical, and internal development.

Seeing the central “Sea of Chi” as its two integral parts, the dan-tien and ming-men,  allows us to more accurately focus on each area independently if we want to intentionally act (dan-tien) or build energy to heal, balance, ground ourselves, or develop chi (min-men).

A Solid Look at the Stances of Tai Chi

A lower tai chi stance is developed by perfecting your posture and then allowing your body to sink.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I decided to write this article as a point of differentiation between the stances of many external arts and the internal art of tai chi chu’an.  A student recently asked for corrections on a stance and I gave them.  He came back the following week hella deep in the stance ready to show me his progress.  I took the wind out of his sails by making more corrections and realized that he studied under Master YouTube for the weekend and came back with some very different ideas.  Most martial arts have bow, cat, and front stances that serve different purposes.

Tai chi stances are designed for 1) health 2) power and 3) agility.

  1. Health:  Tai chi stances maintain open “gates” so that blood can continually flow.  This means that no joint is less than 90 degrees.  This includes the elbows, knees, and the thigh to stomach (Kua) angle.  The armpit is not collapsed.  Imagery of holding a soft ball in your armpit helps envision the posture.
  2. Power:  Good posture is key to developing the strength that comes from the tai chi stance.  By keeping the head and tailbone aligned, the joints open, and blood flow to the muscle, you can take advantage of all of the mechanical forces to create speed and power.
  3. Agility:  Tai chi believes that you would never commit to closing down an arm or leg for some perceived advantage in strength or power.  Here is an example.  Many karate stances bow the lower back and close down the rear inguinal crease (knee pointed down) in the pursuit of stability and power.

tai chi stancestai chi stance

Whereas in this frequent example of Chen masters, the soft lower back, open rear inguinal crease (knee pointed out), and flexed knees provide stability and agility.

Ta Dang (Tah Dong – Collapsed Shelf)

Do you want rapid progress in your tai chi stances?  Do you want to rapidly size-up an opponent or teacher’s abilities?  An understanding of Ta Dang is essential.  Ta Dang refers to a braking of the arch that runs from the inside of one leg to the other.  If you pretended to sit on a stool with good posture you would not have a collapsed shelf (Ta Dang).   This arch is responsible for all of your power and agility.  Trust in your alignment and strength also leads to the depth of your tai chi postures.  Perfect alignment can always be maintained if:  the angle of the stomach to thigh is never smaller than 90 degrees and if the inguinal creases (kuas) are open.  Back to the pictures above. Notice how in the common karate posture  the rear thigh and knee are pointing to the ground and Chen Xiaowang’s rear thigh and knee are pointed out and the crotch is open on both sides.  Hao Dang  – Good Dang

tai chi stancesThis is where the argument begins: “well maybe the styles are different” or “maybe their purposes are different.”   Nine times out of ten I think it is poor transmission of ideas.  For example, Aikido practitioners are notorious for an inverted lower back and rear posted leg.  However, can you find a picture or video of Ueshiba locked or extended?  He would take a knee before breaking this posture.

 

And what about Karate?  Pictures of Itosu, Kyan, Motobu, Nagamine, Kanai Uechi, you name it, all have open kuas (inguinal creases) where the gi or pants don’t obscure the posture.

tai chi stancetai chi stancestai chi stance

Common tai chi stances

Bow Stance:  The bow stance is an obvious 30/70 stance is a combination of a front and horse stance.  The forward knee cannot 1) cross the toe, 2) pitch inward, or 3) pitch outward.

Empty Stance:  A 90/10 distribution designed for connecting two different movements.

Horse Stance:  A 50/50 stance with the lower back not curved in, both kuas open, and the tailbone slightly tucked in.

So how do we practice our tai chi stances to make them great? 

A tai chi stance, like the form, can be performed at three heights.   Height depends on flexibility or how warmed up you are.   You do not get a lower stance in tai chi from going lower.  A lower stance is developed by perfecting your posture and then allowing your body to sink.  You gain depth not by leaning over or closing your hip but by sliding your feet our further with the spine aligned.

More images of tai chi stances

What is Tai Chi Push Hands (Tui Shou)?

To know yourself, practice the form.  To know others, practice push hands.

 

 

 

 

Push hands is one of the most misunderstood concepts of tai chi.  Some think of it as slightly controlled sparring and some think it is very dance like.  For that reason, it scares off practitioners who may not see the relationship between push hands and their goals.  So before tuning out, if you are not martially focused, please read on.  And if you are martially focused please read on.  Push hands is hugely important for the development of internal skills, e.g. health or martial application.

Why do tai chi push hands?

tai chi push handsLet’s start with 6 huge advantages you receive basically from standing in front of someone and rocking back and forth.  You gain an understanding of the body mechanics of the art.

  1. It explains why a posture from the form is a certain way. You may not be exactly sure where a hand goes in a posture but when you learn the application it is cemented in your brain.
  2. It teachers the four main energies (Please see our article on Jing for a full explanation.):
    1. Listening (Ting)
    2. Understanding (Dong)
    3. Neutralizing (Hua)
    4. Issuing (Fa)
  3. It teaches the four main skills in making contact:
    1. Connect (Lian) continually connecting physically and paying attention to intention.
    2. Follow (Sui) obeying your opponent’s intention by letting him think he can apply an application which leads him to use force.
    3. Stick (Nian) making light contact with an opponent without breaking.
    4. Adhere (Zhan) getting an opponent to follow you under your control.
  4. It teachers the four primary principles of movement:
    1. Ward Off (Peng)
    2. Roll Back (Lu)
    3. Press Forward (Gi)
    4. Press Downward (An)
  5. It teaches the four secondary principles in the Da Lu Push hands form:
    1. Pluck (Cai)
    2. Split (Lieh)
    3. Elbow (Jo)
    4. Shoulder (Kow)
  6. It teaches how to move in the five main directions:
        1. Forward
        2. Backward
        3. Left
        4. Right
        5. Central Equilibrium

    tai chi push handsSo I get all of this from standing in front of someone and pushing on them?  Yes, in effect.  Think of the amount of academic work that it would take to understand the above concepts.  You can get their much faster just by beginning push hands.

    The above list may appear daunting but you can gain these skills from proper pushing hands without even knowing the concepts above exist.  The martial implications are more obvious but the movements also provide the energy that fuel your health.  Now, let’s dive into the variety of push hands and help you identify how to let push hands address your goals.

    What does push hands look like?

    Tai chi push hands is a two person activity made up of set patterns.  Typically, two people face each other, connect at the forearm and move in circular patterns while transferring weight back and forth.

    How is tai chi push hands practiced?

    tai chi push handsImagine a long spectrum.  On one end people are smiling and pushing hands, practically dancing and getting the benefits listed above.  On the other end, a stadium in China is filled as two push hands opponents compete by issuing blows and attempting to throw each other to the ground or outside of a ring.  They are reaping the benefits from having gained knowledge from the list above.  How can this be the same thing?

    The fundamental focus of pushing hands.

    Push hands shows us how to apply intention to this invisible internal power.  How you use it is up to you.

    What are the common push hands drills?

    Push hands starts out simple and grows more complex.  This is the same process for whether your intent is martial or health or both.  The difference is that the martially minded pursue sparring routines, fighting, and unrehearsed sparring routines.   Martially focused please note!  You have to increase your sensitivity and move without using your muscle or you will not advance.  You will just be doing a muscle exercise.  Take your time and you will be hugely more effective and stronger.

    It’s very hand to verbally describe push hands so let’s go the easy and fun route and look at some video clips.

    One Handed Push hands: YouTube 00:53

    Stationary Two-handed Push hands:  YouTube 01:57

    Moving Pushhands Patterned:  YouTube  04;00

    Basic Pushhands Application Example:  YouTube – visuals start around 04:20

    Sparring:  YouTube

    How do I find a tai chi push hands group?

    tai chi push handsThis is often harder than learning the drills.  Seek a school or meet-up group that matches your martial/health goals.  Practice can initially be frustrating but then push hands becomes one of the most rewarding events because of the rate at which it increases development.

Additionally, there are books and videos that can get you started.  Check out these tai chi push hands resources on Amazon.

Five Elements Theory 101

Exploring the philosophy and medical history that contribute to tai chi aids in understanding of how we move.

 

 

 

 

 

There is an esoteric side of tai chi that dips in and out of the Tao, the I-Ching, yin-yang theory, and Buddhist philosophy.  Are these terms new to you or confusing?  Join the club.  This is an amazingly large body of knowledge and very few practitioners have completely wrapped their mind around all of these topics.  Unless coming from a philosophical background or having acupuncture knowledge, nearly no new practitioners have this stuff figured out.  Gaining philosophical understanding is a huge reason why people begin tai chi and yet it can seem intimidating at first.   This article is intended to introduce these philosophical principles and how they relate to the art.

Before we get started we need to understand one thing:

Tai chi leads to an understanding of the philosophical principles.  Philosophical principles are NOT initially needed to understand tai chi. 

This idea too often gets turned around and we are left feeling inept.  Tai chi is the philosophy so start moving and start your understanding.  Secondly, if you begin to research Five Elements Theory you will find authors who feel it is too advanced of a study and should be avoided by new practitioners.  It is thick.  I am not going to lie.  However, if you have a sense for how your movements are connected to your health, you make progress.  You make progress, you stick with tai chi.  You stick with tai chi  and benefit from it immensely.  So let’s introduce ourselves to Five Elements Theory and how it relates to tai chi. 

Five Elements Theory

Two primary forces (yin and yang) interact in the body.  Most people would accept that if your body is out of balance, you are less strong, healthy, and mentally alert. (OK, I’m with you).

What does the Five Elements Theory do?  It explains the relationship between the organs, the way energy gets to the organs (meridians), and how the energy (chi) primarily originates from the kidneys. (Sure, the organs each have a job, this job needs energy, the kidneys make the energy and send it along the meridian highways, check!).

Five Elements Theory Why is this chi energy largely associated with the kidneys?  The kidneys are said to hold opposing fire and water energy.  An imbalance here trickles down to affect other organs depending on the imbalance.  In practical terms, the blood is filtered by the kidneys sending fresh blood back in and toxins out.  (Still with ya.  A happy kidney factory means clean, well fueled organs).

How does this relate to health?  All poor health conditions are due to something that an organ is not doing. For example, bronchitis can be attributed to weak lungs.  Equally so, emotional difficulties are tied to organs and can lead to nervous system imbalances. (Whoa, so I can affect the two sides of this coin?  1) My eating, liquid intake, and exercise affects what arrives at the kidneys. 2) My activities affect how the kidneys function.  But what activities??).

Simplify this.  How does tai chi fit in to five elements theory?

Much of the meditation and concentration involves focusing on your belly where the dantien and mingmen are located.  These directly nourish the nearby kidneys.  The movements of taichi rotate and massage the center.  These activities balance the kidneys.  The kidneys then balance the rest of the system. (Tai chi is designed in-part to nourish and support the activity of the kidneys.  2500 years of research can’t be wrong I guess).

 For those that want to dive down the Five Element Theory rabbit hole I will send you off in a few directions here:

Some practitioners focus on strengthening a certain meridian and organ based on what season it is.  This makes a lot of sense and is quite intriguing.

Season Element Focus Why
Winter Water Kidneys,Bladder Generate energy to other organs to stave off fatigue, coldness, and weight gain.
Spring Wood Liver,Gall Bladder Increase strength and stamina for coming summer activity and processing of summer foods
Summer Fire Heart,Sm. Intestine Stabilize blood flow, blood supply, clarity and process foods of summer.
Late Summer Earth Spleen,Stomach Obtain energy from the activities and foods of harvest.
Fall Metal Lungs,Lg. Intestine Strengthen the lungs before the winter months.

Practitioners also link the directions of movements with the five elements to describe the 1) power that is supplied to the movement Five Elements Theory and to 2) identify which movements can be performed to alleviate health concerns.

Earth On Guard, Centering
Wood Retreat
Gold Advance
Fire Move to the Right
Water Move to the Left

Don’t get overwhelmed by the technical aspects of five elements theory

5 elements theoryYes five elements theory is complex but take away the pieces that you understand and let the rest sink in over time. Know that when you practice and your movements improve, the direct impact on your health can be felt.  We can learn and remain light-hearted.  Here is a funny and perfect example to keep you grounded.  Chinese Five Elements According to South Park

Acupuncture’s Relationship to Tai Chi – The Extraordinary Vessels

Progress in Tai Chi can be enriched with a basic knowledge of the Eight Extraordinary Vessels and acupuncture.

 

 

 

Acupuncture Smackyoupuncture!  I barely got my head wrapped around the Chinese words and foreign concepts and now you are telling me that there are a series of routes that run through my body that I didn’t know about AND I need to know this for tai chi??

Daunting isn’t it?  Still drives me nuts.  But not because I am overwhelmed (anymore) but because the more I progress and have novel feelings inside, I want to know what is going on. We are going to spend a few minutes on the relationship between acupuncture and tai chi.  This text will serve as an introduction to some of you or offer robust search criteria if you are so inclined.

The Eight Extraordinary Vessels (Qi Jing Ba Mai)

So imagine you grew up living in New York City.  Driving, riding your bicycle, taxis, the whole lot.  Then one day someone says, “Have you ever taken the subway?”  And you say, “What’s a subway?”  You never heard of this subway thing and it sounds nice and all, but you have your bicycle and enjoy a good walk.  However, now you know about this subway thing and are curious.  You try it once and are now second guessing the taxi system.  You start to see its role in NYC and hope to benefit from it when you know how to use it to get somewhere.  You have even heard of people who now only use the subway.  Scary.

Welcome to the Eight Extraordinary Vessels

Most accept that chi, an energy, resides and moves throughout the body.  The eight extraordinary vessels are the canals that connect the meridians which emanate from our organs.   Let’s beat this transportation metaphor completely into the ground.  The organs are cities which each have a purpose.  The meridians are the highways and the vessels are intersections of meridians and places to rest and refuel.

extraordinary vesselsWhat are the Eight Extraordinary Vessels?

The vessels distribute energy throughout the body and influence metabolic activity.

  • 2 Motility Vessels: Yin and Yang (Qiao Mai): facilitate motion up the legs and balance of the right and left sides.
  • Conception Vessel (Ren Mai): is the source of energy and influences the endocrine and respiratory system.  Flows up the center of the body.
  • Governing Vessel (Du Mai): influences the central nervous system.  Flows up the spinal column into the brain.
  • Belt Vessel (Dai Mai): runs around the center. Influences flow through vertical meridians by constricting or loosening.
  • Penetrating Vessel (Chong Mai): flows throughout the body and returns chi to the source. Influences other systems for this reason.
  • 2 Linking Vessels: Yin and Yang (Wei Mai): preserves yin and yang energy and distributes internal and external chi.

How does this apply to Acupuncture?extraordinary vessels

Acupuncture uses needles to detect and correct imbalances of energy flow along the meridians.  If there is too much or an undesired amount of an energy, it is released.  If there is too little, acupuncture builds it up.

How does this apply to Tai Chi?

  • Nourishing the organs: the movements of taichi are designed to drive energy to and between the organs.
  • Purpose of relaxing: Your ability to relax correlates with increased flow.
  • Awareness of injury/blockage:  Injuries and tight muscles (knots) are messages from your system that blood and energy are not traveling right.  In any other sport you say: “Aw d@%m I hurt my shoulder again!”  In tai chi you say: “Thank you for showing me that old injury, now I can work to release it.”

Does this blow your mind?  It is obviously more complex than what is presented here.  But as a beginner, can you see how these movements account for that feeling of well-being?  This is how so many different ailments have improved from tai chi.  For internally directed practitioners, further study of the eight vessels reveals the roadmap needed to balance your energy and move it around.

Here is more reading:

book on eight extraordinary vessels

An Exposition on the Eight Extraordinary Vessels: Acupuncture, Alchemy, and Herbal Medicine

 

book on eight extraordinary vessels 2Extraordinary Vessels

Progress in Tai Chi: Reducing Attrition in Tai Chi Classes

A few simple insights can sustain great development in you, your classmates, or your students.

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you are a teacher or a student of tai chi then this article is for you.  Actually, this article conveys one of the main goals of this website; expanded practice of taichi.  So many benefits have been ascribed to tai chi that it captivates the interest of nearly everyone.  However, we lose a lot of students who start off highly dedicated and then stop practicing.   So what happens?  Let’s start with some reasons that attendance is important and then talk about ways to increase involvement of practitioners.

Why increase the number of tai chi practitioners or why keep practicing?

  • Increased number of practitioners globally:  Not to sound too Pollyanna but by practicing tai chi we are contributing to a global sense of community and wellbeing.  If you are thinking “Meanwhile, back on earth…” and are not yet at a place where that is conceivable, it can’t hurt right?
  • Deeper development of Tai Chi in the U.S.: The more advanced as a group we become, the better instruction we receive in visits from China.  I have already seen a shift in workshop content from the basics to more advanced topics at times.
  • The bottom line:  We could get snarky and say that more students equal more income which is true.  However, if you are good enough to earn a living from helping people then we would hope that you are compensated and can pay the rent.

How do we sustain the group we work out with or make it grow?progress in tai chi

The following information comes from multiple teachers and from a survey that I conducted with my students.  Attendance of a free community class was low or intermittent.  I was reluctant to do a survey because I feared the answers but it was the perfect opportunity because pricing was not part of the equation.  I was happy to learn that much of the concerns were things that I could easily fix.

Creating Progress in Tai Chi

  • Show progress: Completion of a Qi Gong Set or a Tai Chi Form goes a long ways.   And there should be some reward for it (applause?  T-shirt?).  In tai chi we don’t typically have a belt system so marking progress in tai chi is more nebulous.  Dedicated practitioners often abhor the idea of belts because belts don’t equate to progress.  Many tai chi practitioners gravitated away from other martial arts for this very reason but the Japanese and Korean system might have something to teach here.  I would never advocate a belt system for taichi but the human intellect still likes to know that they are moving in the right direction.
  • Make tangible progress: Refer to the articles marked “Key Concepts” because nothing hooks a practitioner like actual progress.
  • Work out: No, this is not cross-fit but after 20 years of athletics, weight lifting, and a stint in the military, some of the most grueling workouts I have experienced were in taichi private lessons with Grand Masters.  When my student’s thighs are sore from proper pole-standing or they break a sweat they are gratified (and asked for more!).  Internal strength takes a while to develop and be sensitive to.  Our society craves feedback and light fatigue and sweating is sometimes expected after “activity.”
  • Ask about injuries: Share old sports injuries or repetitive (mousing) strains because the tai chi cannon and specifically the silk reeling sets have movements to cure and strengthen injuries.  I invite students to share and when I can fix it we both are pleased.  I have a friend who fixed the posture of a professional bass player, eliminating hours of pain, and gaining a long-term student.
  • Share resources:  The water cooler conversations include tons of topics that you have probably read in tai chi magazine, books, or seen online.  Print those for the next class and bring them in.

progress in tai chiI was extremely proud the first time I brought a student through the Chen long form.  It reminded me of an artist I heard talk of the importance of his first $50 sale.  When one practitioner advances we all do, and that includes society as a whole.

 

For more reading, here is a pretty bright and entertaining cartoon version of progress in tai chi.  Brisbane Chen Tai Chi

The Three Dantians

 Tai chi creates the foundational energy needed to develop the three main energy points in the body.

 

 

 

 

 

This is a quick article introducing the novice to the dantian and the more experienced practitioner to the idea that there are three of them.  These three energy centers have been identified in the body.  They control and store energy and energy potential. The three dantians are each associated with one energy, collectively known as the three treasures.  They are:

The Lower Dantian: (Jing) located two inches below the navel, it is the source of energy which builds the physical body and allows us to develop and use Qi and Shen.

The Middle Dantian: (QI) located at the heart, it is energy created from food and air and relates to our emotions and thoughts.

The Upper Dantian: (Shen) located at a center point just higher than the eye brows, it is related to our spirit and/or consciousness.

dantianAny reference to “the dantian” is most likely referring to the lower dantian unless a distinction is made.  A few reasons for this:

  • It is the first and original source of chi energy.
  • The other dantians and most tai chi energy points in the body cannot be felt until enough energy has been built in the lower dantian.  Energy then travels to these other points and lends them their “sensation.”
  • In martial terms it is the center for power.

What should we understand about the dantians?

Our goal in taichi and in qi gong is to build our energy within the body and increase the circulation of fluid.

How do we increase our energy in the three dantians?

The two important principles that begin cleaning and building energy are posture and breath.  We 1) maintain a good posture and 2) regulate our breathing.  Then we 3) coordinate our movements with our breath and at an advanced level 4) move our energy internally with our intention.

How do the three dantians relate to tai chi?

Hopefully this article points to the immense intelligence embedded in the tai chi form.  The moves were designed to activate and build the energy centers based on thousands of years of refinement and research.   As a beginner you automatically get to benefit from the intrinsic knowledge that the form possesses.  I would suggest Mantak Chia’s work on the Microcosmic Orbit if you are interested or ready to begin taking advantage of the energy you have awoken with taichi and are ready to move it around the body.
three dantiens

If you are looking for dantien – dantian – dan tian – dan tien you are in the right place.

Forgive the absence of exact sound pronunciation between Chinese and English.  There is a slight variability between what linguists call minimal pairs (b/p, t/d, g/k) which cause the trouble.   The most common spelling is dantian.  Read more about the reasons behind the differences in pronounciation here:

Tai chi 101 : Is it Tai Chi, Taiji, taichi, or T’ai Chi Chuan?