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neglected of exercises: the Wu Chi (absolute void) or formal posture, the Tai Chi (supreme ultimate) or opening posture (sometimes also referred to as the Three-circle stance), and the transition between them. Tai Chi Chuan forms begin in the formal stance and shift into the opening posture, and also finish by doing the opposite, this is true of nearly all Tai Chi Chuan styles (a few have shortened it by simply beginning and ending the form in the Tai Chi stance). This will strike most informed readers as an oddity because the traditional Chinese martial arts are particularly characterized by their diversity. A need to differentiate and innovate through the creation of different forms seems to be one of the few universals for all traditional Chinese martial arts, Tai Chi is no exception; there's five major recognized family styles (Chen, Yang, Wu, Wu-Hao, and Sun), along with a myriad assortment of lesser know styles (such as the Mulan style [known for its fan form], the Wu Tang style [arguably the original form, well known for its sword form] and the so-called Yang Michuan style [also known for it's sword form]) all have different forms with different postures, but are still considered Tai Chi. Another thing these disparate forms share is the Wu Chi/Tai Chi postures as their only universal posture/movement. We'll be looking at why this is, what the benefits are, and lastly we'll explore the movement in itself and describe how to practice it. Why it's universal To understand why this movement is common to all styles we need to know why all of these diverse styles are considered a single martial art. The reasoning can best be illustrated as a metaphor: a tree. All of these styles are the branches on the tree of Tai Chi Chuan. The roots that are common to all branches, and at the same time form the base from which the style is derived is philosophical theory. The Tai Chi theory is one of the cornerstones of Taoist practice. The informed reader will know that Tai Chi Chuan is a soft/internal Taoist martial art (aka Nei Gong). This means that the source of power used in its techniques come from harmonized whole body motion, which practitioners achieve by focusing their body's natural energy. This is what is often referred to as moving the chi (life energy) through the body. Practitioners of Nei Gong styles harmonize their bodies into a single unit, all is one and the same: “there is no arrow and no target, they are one and the same”. To the Tai Chi Chuan practitioner mind and body move as one, all units of the body move as one. The power of heaven and earth is used. This all sounds very esoteric so let's be a little more concrete; any good martial artist or even a decent street fighter knows that every great swing needs a solid foundation and a good follow through. In action this means we push down into the ground with our feet (usually our rear foot). The ground is an immovable object in respect to whatever force we can generate (otherwise we'd fall) so Newton's Third Law of motion tells us that an equal and opposite force is then generated (i.e. when we push the ground the ground doesn't move, we do). This force that is now moving our bodies is often referred to as ground strength (which is why the old masters say to “draw power from the earth”), and mechanically speaking it's the source of every effective Tai Chi Chuan technique. What happens next is that this force moves our body and we let it travel out and into our opponent. To do this as effectively and efficiently as possible Tai Chi Chuan artists relax the body to eliminate any energy blockage. In more mechanical terms we relax our bodies with proper slow, deep breathing and let the power from our initial push come up our legs to our kua or hipcrease (inguinal crease), the natural fold which stretches up diagonally, outward from the perineumhuiyin, to the juncture between the top of the hip bone and the base of the outer pelvis.) Next we rotate our hips and lead the movement into the torso (rotating it as well) and then out through our hands. Illustrating the traditional chinese martial master's penchant for brevity and mystique this whole process is described in poetic form by Chang San-feng: “The internal energy, ch'i, roots at the feet, then transfers through the legs and is controlled from the waist, moving eventually through the back to the arms and fingertips.”1 So now we should understand the basic mechanics of Tai Chi Chuan power, but how
1 Waysun Liao, The Tai Chi Classics pg. 89 Shambhala Classics, Boston 2000
does it all fit into Taoist beliefs and the Tai Chi Theory? Simply put Taoists believed that there is an original state, Wuji. This state is a void, non-being. In a macrocosmic sense this is what modern astronomers might call the time previous to the big bang, there was essentially nothing. From this void came a sudden change, motion. This change is what astronomers call the big bang and Taoists call the appearance of Yang energy. Yang energy is explosive and positive energy. But Newton's third law of motion has already kicked in and if we have a centrifugal force moving out an equal centripetal force will begin to take effect. An astronomer would illustrate this in current observations that lead to the belief that the universe has been, and still is, in constant expansion. However that expansion is slowing down and will eventually reverse. A Taoist would say that this is Yin energy. Where Yang is explosive and positive Yin is a receiving, negative energy2. From Wuji (the void) we get a force of motion (Yang) and a simultaneous counter force (Yin)3. These forces constantly balance each other out, endlessly. This is what Taoist refer to as Tai Chi, the Supreme Ultimate, a state of absolute balance and harmony. (Observe figure4)This is the first part of the Tai Chi Theory (further details will appear in future writings) and is the cornerstone of our art -so much so that it lends the art its name. Now we can begin to look at all of the different styles, or rather each of their different forms. All share this particular Wuji/Taiji movement. Beginning in Wuji stance, shift into Tai Chi stance, go through a series of different movements and finally shifting into Tai Chi stance before returning to the Wuji stance, as stated earlier. Now it seems clear that every Tai Chi Chuan form is essentially a manifestation or representation of the Tai Chi Theory, “Wuji gives birth to Tai Chi”. The void gives birth to motion, which is counter balanced, takes on a myriad of forms in a constant shift of energy between Yang and Yin until finally returning to Wuji the void (i.e. our universe came from non-existence into a sudden expanding force, but with a constant counter force which will eventually reverse compressing the universe back into a condensed mass). The art of Tai Chi Chuan has as its roots the Tai Chi Theory, the forms are merely physical representations of that theory and therefore all must share this particular Wuji/Tai Chi movement in order to illustrate said theory. Yin and Yang forces manifest themselves throughout the world in an endless variety of ways5, as is shown by the fact that every form has several different movements not only in themselves, but also between each other. Despite all of this variety, all come from Wuji into Tai Chi, and back. Benefits The benefits are many. The movement of changing from one posture to another teaches us how to shift our balance completely from one side to another. This represents the birth of Yang energy from Wuji. Instantly our second leg reaches out and we distribute our body weight evenly, representing the countering force of Yin energy and bringing us to a state of balance between the two, Tai Chi. Thus we learn how to maintain proper balance, body alignment, and breath. Also through all of these benefits we gain a sense of readiness for action. This sense of readiness is vital for using Tai Chi Chuan as a martial art. In Tai Chi Chuan we learn that moving takes place in five cardinal directions (forward, back, left, right, and center) arguably the most important is ding, remaining at the center. In Tai Chi all that we do has an offensive and defensive use. Often the center is neglected by students. This is probably one of the biggest mistakes one can make. The center is the starting point of every movement and if we begin from a shaky, weak or unbalanced center all that follows will show it. Our movements will be weak and unbalanced, turning us into easy targets. By training the center we learn to have a strong, but flexible foundation that can shift to whatever comes our way, even absorbing (and later repelling) attacks that cannot be dodged. This sense of readiness to move from a stable center is integral to any martial art as well as anything else we do in life; adaptability is essential for progress and ultimately survival. By being able to adapt to the world around us we can shift however we need.
2 Negative and Positive are used here in the sense a physicist would, not a moralist. 3 For further exploration see the treatise by Wong Chung-yua, The Tai Chi Classics pg. 97 4 Taijitu shuo 太極圖說 "Explanation of the Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate", written by the Zhou Dunyi (10171073 CE) 5 A phenomenon Taoists call giving birth to the Ten thousand things.
The Wuji and the Tai Chi postures are the quintessential examples of this principle. These stances force us to learn how to keep a steady balance, remaining calm and centered so that we can shift in anyway we need to. Holding these postures is the best way of exercising this principle until we can make it our own. I usually have my students perform the opening sequence several times so that they can learn to align themselves, practice their breathing, and learn how to remain rooted but flexible. The skilled Tai Chi Chuan artist is often likened to a willow tree, firm and pliable, capable of surviving powerful storm winds that uproot and break their firmer, hardwood companions. This is what we can learn from our practice By forming a solid root in the Wu Chi posture we are strong, but we must be flexible. By shifting our balance onto one leg and moving into the Tai Chi posture we learn how to remain balanced and rooted while we move, like a planet remains in a steady orbit while continuously rotating. We remain calm and still within while moving with speed without. Practice Performing the exercise seems deceptively simple: shift from standing straight with feet together, move one foot to the left (or right depending on style) and gently sink. Despite all appearances this elemental exercise actually tends to prove very trying for students when they begin due to all the minor details involved. These details are constants in Tai Chi Chuan practice and this exercise is particularly useful as it forces the student to be mindful of these basic requirements while performing a simple movement. Over time practice will allow the practitioner to perform his movements without premeditation in a state of mindlessness (what the Japanese Samurai call mushin) often alluded to in Taoist texts. Initially however constant focus is vital to correctly coordinating the student's actions. First we must discuss those details which form the cornerstone of Tai Chi Chuan as a Taoist practice, chi flow. Focusing the chi requires mindfulness of posture, breath and movement. Posture in Tai Chi Chuan is best described as relaxed readiness; all your muscles, tendons and particularly your joints must feel relaxed, loose and ready to move suddenly. The key is to be slightly aware of every part of your body, feel the alignment of every vertebrae in your spine, the gentle bending of your elbows, knees, wrists and ankles while letting your shoulders sink and your kua open. The image most often given to students is to picture a willow tree, while it's neighboring hardwoods will fall in a storm due to strong winds a willow is so relaxed and flexible as to move along with whatever force the wind may bring, effortlessly allowing it to pass by while remaining unmoved and solidly rooted. Obviously this is not easy! In terms of mechanical posture instruction the student must begin in the formal (Wu Chi) posture with both feet close together and all his/her joints must be slightly bent and relaxed. It is particularly important to relax the shoulders (letting the arms drop almost limply beside the hips) and straighten the spine while softly tucking in the tailbone and gently dropping the chin. This lengthens the spine to its maximum and allows the internal organs to organize themselves in the most spacious and comfortable manner, which facilitates the flow of energy throughout the body as well as allowing for deeper more efficient breathing. There should be a sense of sinking the whole body. Attention is focused on bringing the breath in to the Dan Tien, a point slightly below the navel, giving a sense of buoyancy. When breathing out one should focus on lifting the breath up along every vertebrae of the spine, up and over the head and out the nose. This allows the student to have a balanced relaxed stance (what Taoists call balancing heaven above and earth below). Next one of the feet (usually the left is used to open most forms) is raised slightly. It is important that no weight be put on the elevated foot, otherwise balance would be lost. The foot is then moved to the side at shoulder length and gently placed toe-first. It is vital that weight be transferred to the foot very slowly and only after the toes have been placed, otherwise balance will be lost, resulting in an awkward stomp rather than a soft step. Once in this, the Tai Chi posture, the arms are elevated to shoulder height (not higher) in front of the body while drawing the breath in and simultaneously straightening the knees and raising the body. The breath is slowly released as the arms are gently lowered back to their natural (and initial) position beside the hips. The
practitioner will also bend the knees slightly, sinking the whole body while lowering the arms. After this forms will begin to differ depending on whatever style one practices. At the end of the form the practitioner will shift into the Tai Chi posture and from there into Wu Chi posture, reversing the steps given. I usually have my students perform the movement, shifting from Wu Chi to Tai Chi and back several times. This is invaluable to beginners as it allows them to focus on the basic breathing and posture principles while incorporating the difficulties of stepping, body shifting and weight distribution on a limited scale. This gives the student an opportunity to incorporate all of the styles basic principles without the more demanding movements and the memorizing of forms (this will of course be learned later). This exercise functions as a bridge between Zhan Zhuang (standing post training which will be discussed at a later date) and form training, making it an invaluable tool to help students progress smoothly and gradually. Also, it can function as a bridge, uniting what might at first seem like drastically different styles as brother and sister forms (branches) of the same art (trunk), with the same principles (roots). In essence this article should remind us all that Tai Chi Chuan is, despite all differences in form, a single art.
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