Training Essentials for Tai Chi

edited by Dr. Larry C. Bobbert – revised 5/31/14

Tai Chi is one of China’s precious treasures developed out of the culture of China’s ancient past.  Tai Chi Chuan is a brilliant pearl within the circle of Chinese Wushu.  Not only is Tai Chi a very profound philosophy, but it is also a very practical and effective martial art and an exercise with very beneficial healing properties. Consequently, Tai Chi Chuan has been popularly accepted by people throughout the world. The main emphases during the practice of Tai Chi Chuan are a stable calm mind, a relaxed body, and a deep breathing pattern with the movements conducted in an agile, smooth, and circular fashion. The movements must be conducted with the mind, not with external muscular strength. The movements of Tai Chi are motion within silence. The mind must remain calm even during the active movements of Tai Chi Chuan practice. The movements of Tai Chi Chuan will invigorate the blood and internal energy, open the meridians, and strengthen the tendons and bones. “When one part moves, then all parts must move”. This is a basic principle found within the philosophy of Tai Chi Chuan.

Tai Chi is a type of gongfu which aids in the cultivation of internal strength and energy. Tai Chi is a form of movement which will cultivate spirit, intent, internal energy, and innate sensations and the ability to continuously change from fullness and emptiness and back in an ongoing cycle. Consequently, the essentials of Tai Chi must be mastered and put into practice in order to properly obtain the complete function of this art. These essentials for the proper practice of Tai Chi are explained below:

1.  Body Maintains an Upright Posture:

When practicing Tai Chi, one must first be able to maintain an upright posture. This means that the torso region must remain straight without any inclination during practice. The Wei Lu (tail bone) must form a straight line with the spine. From the beginning of the form to the completion, this posture must be maintained. The Tai Chi Classics stated this by saying, “the Wei Lu is straight and the spirit is risen”. When the Wei Lu is straight, then the lower body will be stable and centered.  If the center of the lower body is unstable, then the opponent will be able to borrow one’s strength and exert control.  Consequently, one must be able to maintain an upright posture and secure the internal spirit.  The head must be held up, the back must be straight, and the waist must be relaxed and supple to naturally maintain the upright posture in the entire body.  When this occurs the spirit will be natural and the internal energy will be full and sufficient to give the practitioner a feeling of stability and tranquility.

When the body maintains an upright posture in the practice of Tai Chi, then it will regulate the internal organs, bones and joints, and the muscles to conform to the natural process of the body’s physiological functions.  Moreover, it will connect the other essentials of Tai Chi together to obtain maximum exercise for the entire body.  In terms of fighting applications, maintaining an upright body will allow one to follow and adhere to the opponent’s every move.  The classics state this by “not loosing the opponent and not resisting the attack (Bu Diu Bu Ding)”.

2.  Relax and Be Calm:

Tai Chi is a form of movement which cultivates spirit, intent, and emptiness.  From the beginning to the end of practice, the spirit must remain natural and comfortable.  During the performance of the routine, the mind must be cleared of all scattered thoughts to enter a state of tranquillity; the spirit is concentrated to combine with the mind.  This is exemplified in the Tai Chi Classics as “When one point is calm then there is not one point that is not calm”. By maintaining a calm state the brain’s nervous system will remain in a clear and awakened state. This will lead to improvement in the capabilities of the mind and improvement in the intellect.

The practice of Tai Chi also requires the entire body to remain relaxed.   A relaxed state does not mean a limp body.  In order to relax the body, one must first learn to relax the mind.  Afterwards, the body should completely relax from the head to toe – head, shoulders, spine, waist, hips, hands, elbows, wrists, and feet.  The Tai Chi Classics say that “when one point relaxes, then one hundred points will relax”.  When the body can relax then the joints will be relieved of tension, the blood and internal energy will flow freely, and the spirit will be clear. After a long period of maintaining a relaxed natural state, the internal strength will gradually increase. Finally, the practice of relaxation will produce great internal strength which is soft, rooted, and elastic in nature.

3) Suspend the Head and Lift Up the Energy:

Tai Chi  emphasizes suspending the head and lifting up the energy. The spirit is locked in the top of the head so the head should be held upright with the Bai Hui (crown) point suspended lightly upward.  The feeling should be as if a string is attached to the crown and is lifting the body off the ground; or a bowl of water is being suspended on the top of the head.  As can be seen, this is conducted with the intent without the use of any external strength. Should external strength be applied to produce this posture, this will disrupt the natural positioning of the body and produce stagnation and stiffness within the body.  The chin should be slightly tucked in, the forehead unintentionally relaxed, and the tongue placed on the roof of the mouth.  Only by maintaining the proper feeling of suspending the head and lifting up the energy will the spirit naturally rise and the blood and internal energy naturally circulate throughout the body.

4.   Sink the Internal Energy into the Dantian:

Sinking the internal energy into the Dantian is a major emphasis in the practice of Tai Chi. The Dantian is the region three fingers below the navel. During the practice of Tai Chi Chuan the mind will lead the internal energy down into the Dantian. Beginners should not place too much emphasis on the use of the mind to lead the internal energy into the Dantian. One should not intentionally force the internal energy into the Dantian region. One must know that the sinking of the internal energy into the Dantian is a natural phenomena that results when the body is completely relaxed during the practice of Tai Chi Chuan. Relaxation begins first with the mind and then the body; only after this can the internal energy sink into the Dantian.

5.   Relax the Shoulders and Sink the Elbows:

Relaxing the shoulders means to allow the shoulder joints to sink down. If the shoulders are lifted up then the internal energy and blood will become stagnant. Sinking the elbows uses the intent to lower the elbows in a downward manner.  When practicing Tai Chi, the two arms must never be over extended. The arms should always be slightly bent maintaining an arc-shaped pattern.  The two arms should feel as if there is a sinking energy within the arms; soft and flexible with a downward strength.  The armpits should be opened and relaxed.  This will allow for greater circulation of blood and internal energy into the arms and hands.  This type of sinking strength is soft on the outside, but hard on the inside. The strength is like a metal rod wrapped in cotton.

6.   Hollow the Chest and Straighten the Back:

The practice of Tai Chi Chuan always emphasizes the regulation of hollowing the chest and straightening the back. Hollowing the chest is simply allowing the chest to relax without it protruding out. This will allow the internal energy to sink into the Dantian. Should the chest stick out, then the internal energy will become stagnant and breathing will become shallow. One, however, should not intentionally cause the chest to collapse inward to induce the hollowing effect. Collapsing the chest will cause the upper back to hump over thereby influencing the postures and one’s health. When this occurs the blood and internal energy will not be able to circulate freely to the heart. In terms of Tai Chi Chuan’s martial aspect, the hollowing of the chest is very important. By properly aligning the chest one will be able to dissolve oncoming attacks.

Straightening the back is a way to open and expand the rear portion of the torso. The spine should be lengthened with an upward feeling. By suspending the head, the back will naturally straighten. When this can be accomplished, the postures will be heroic and beautiful. Moreover, by straightening the back the internal energy can adhere to the spine and enter the bone. When applied to push hands, the power that can be developed from this proper alignment will be able to push an opponent very far.

7) Harmonize the Internal and External:

Tai Chi Chuan emphasizes “first using the mind to activate motion followed by the shape”. This means bringing together the spirit, intent, internal energy, and the body to form a superior boxing skill. Harmonizing the internal means circulating the internal energy with the intent. This will improve the functions of the central nervous system and improve the mental functions of the brain. All movements, no matter how small, should be controlled by the intent. Over time the practitioner should strive to achieve the three internal harmonies. This consists of harmonizing the spirit with the intent; harmonizing the intent with the internal energy; and harmonizing the internal energy with strength.

Harmonizing the external means differentiating the changes of emptiness and fullness within the movements of Tai Chi Chuan. The external shape consists of the external body such as the legs, torso, and arms. By allowing the nine major joints to be relaxed, loosened, and exercised there will be improvement in coordinating the upper and lower body as well as an overall stimulation to the entire body. The internal and external must combine into a harmonious blend both in form and spirit. These two must never be separated. Each posture must have a mutual relationship with the internal spirit and intent.

8) Coordinate the Upper and Lower Body Movements:

During the practice of Tai Chi Chuan, each movement must emphasize the mutual coordination of the upper and lower body. In the Tai Chi Classics there is a saying which states that “when one point moves then all points must also move”. Each movement must be produced by the turning of the waist in which all parts of the body will move in unison. All parts of the body must be coordinated with the movement of the waist. The energy is generated in the feet, issued through the legs, controlled in the waist, and driven out through the hands and fingers. This must be conducted in one breath. By controlling the postures in this way, one will be able to manifest internal force. The waist and spine order the movements, the spirit in the eyes follows along, and the hands and feet follow the motion. Upper and lower movements are tightly connected into a natural body. The nucleus of coordinating the upper and lower body movements is in the agile changes of the mind or intent. The feet will allow the body to become stable and rooted. This type of rooting must be controlled by the waist and groin. The waist is the controller for issuing internal force. For this to occur, however, the upper and lower parts of the body must be regulated into one body.

Another aspect of coordinating the upper and lower body movements is the harmonization of the three externals. This means combining or linking up the hands and feet, elbows and knees, and hips and shoulders. In other words, The upper and lower extremities, during the process of practice, must be mutually coordinated especially the above mentioned joints. At the same time, every part of the torso must also follow in unison to allow the body, hands, steps, and eyes to move in one complete direction. This will focus the intent and will concentrate the internal force to form a united body.

9) Use the Intent, Not External Strength:

During the practice of Tai Chi, one should maintain a naturally relaxed posture using the mind/intent without the use of external strength. Every movement must be led by the use of the mind. The classics state that the mind leads the internal energy and the internal energy leads the motion of the body. There should never be any type of external brute force used in the performance of the movements. Even though this is very important principle in the practice of Tai Chi Chuan, many beginners often find this to be quite difficult to put into action. Intent of the mind is also required to stimulate the central nervous system to allow the movements to occur. If there is no intent, then there will be no movement. The movements of the body and the activities of the internal organs are synthesized under the orders of the nervous system.

The body must be relaxed and flexible with the use of strength. The four extremities should feel as if there are no bones to allow the internal strength to be emitted out naturally without brute force. Through continuous practice of this requirement, one will produce true internal strength; soft on the outside, but strong on the inside.

10.   Step Like a Walking Cat:

The stepping pattern in Tai Chi is light and agile as well as stable and healthy. The steps must be relaxed and rooted. The stepping pattern must resemble the motions of a walking cat or tiger. Rising and lowering is light, stable and quiet. Consequently, the practice of stepping is a very important aspect in Tai Chi Chuan. When advancing to the front, one must first relax and open the hip in order to lightly raise the heel of the foot off the ground. Afterwards, relax the waist and sink the hips. The center of gravity gradually shifts forward to the front leg. The upper body must maintain an upright posture without rising up or lowering down during the transition. After continuous practice of this step, the legs will develop a relaxed elastic strength.

11) Move Like Pulling Silk:

The practice of Tai Chi Chuan always should emphasize finesse and spirit. Consequently, the movements within the entire routine must be rooted without stiffness. The movements should be light, but not floating. Movement should be as fine as drawing silk out of a cocoon. This requires stability, evenness, and a completely relaxed body. The arms are sunk and relaxed and the intent leads the movements. By following this requirement the finesse and flavor of the routine will naturally appear.

12) Movement Must be Continuous:

The entire Tai Chi Chuan routine must be performed in a continuous manner like a cloud floating in the sky and water flowing in a stream. The mind must lead the internal energy and the internal energy must move the body. When all the movements are continuous without stopping, then the blood and internal energy will circulate freely throughout the body. Internal energy will fill the entire body. All the movements from the beginning of Tai Chi to the closing posture must be performed in one continuous motion. This requires a high level of

concentrated spirit to accomplish such a task. Consequently, Tai Chi Chuan is a very beneficial exercise for stimulating the central nervous system and the function of the brain. In this way, Tai Chi Chuan will bring about a calm and relaxed state to promote health and longevity.

13) Breathing Must be Natural:

The practice of Tai Chi Chuan emphasizes a deep, long, even, natural breathing pattern. One need not intentionally coordinate the breath with the movements. Tai Chi Chuan places more emphasis on sinking the internal energy into the Dantian and moving in a continuous manner. Over time, the breath will become deep and even. There should be no intent placed on drawing the breath down into the abdomen region. It will naturally occur over time. Tai Chi Chuan practice is a natural process; the breath will naturally coordinate with the movements. This must never be forced.

Tai Chi Chuan is a high level form of qigong, however Tai Chi Chuan cultivates a natural type of internal energy without force. When the internal energy is forced, then stagnation will occur. When a bowl of water is spilled on the ground, the water will naturally flow along the cracks and crevasses. One cannot intentionally provoke the flow of the water in the direction one wishes. This goes against the laws of nature. The way in which Tai Chi Chuan naturally coordinates the breath is very conformable to natural physiological processes. This type of natural breathing pattern will achieve the goal of sinking the internal energy into the Dantian. This will also allow the movements of Tai Chi Chuan to be more rooted and stable and relaxed and natural.

14) The Mind Must be Concentrated:

The practice of Tai Chi Chuan not only emphasizes the relaxation of the body, the calming of the mind, and a natural breathing pattern, but it also emphasizes a concentrated mind. The thoughts cannot be scattered during practice. The eyes must have martial intent. The mind must be stable and tranquil during practice. Upon achieving this, the essence of Tai Chi Chuan will appear and one’s spirit will be clear and firm. If the thoughts are scattered, one will not be able to perform the true essence of Tai Chi Chuan.

15) Movement Must be Light and Agile:

The practice of Tai Chi Chuan is based on the use of intent, not external strength. The spirit is locked in the top of the head. The internal energy sinks down into the Dantian. The upper part of the body is empty and agile, the central portion of the body moves as if pulling silk, and the lower portion of the body moves with the stability of a walking cat. One stands upright without inclination. The body is relaxed, rounded, and alive while moving in a natural way. One should be able to differentiate emptiness and fullness.

16) Movement Must be Smooth:

Tai Chi Chuan requires calmness in motion with the cultivation of spirit and intent. The movements of Tai Chi Chuan should be stable and comfortable, light and smooth with a slow even pace. The slowness of the movements should produce a deep and long breath and a sinking of the internal energy into the Dantian. The movements must be slow and even. There should not be fast and slow actions during the routine; all movements must be consistently slow.

It must be understood that these sixteen essentials are mutually interrelated. They are linked throughout the entire routine of Tai Chi Chuan from beginning to end. However, some may not be as important than others in certain movements. Beginners often overlook or forget

about certain essentials while trying to pay attention to others. This is a natural process of learning and should not be taken to seriously. Over time the practitioner will become more acquainted with integrating all of the essentials into one complete and natural body.

Beginners often make the mistake of being in a hurry to complete the movements of Tai Chi Chuan. They do not consider the accuracy of the movements and upon completion feel they have mastered the art of Tai Chi Chuan. They do not strive to move deeper into the theory and requirements of Tai Chi Chuan. When the teacher talks of these essential points, they do not want to listen. Some students may be with a teacher for many years, but do not research into the essence of the art. They simply follow the movements of the teacher and regard this as enough to achieve excellence in the art of Tai Chi Chuan. The student must be sure to understand the essential requirements of Tai Chi Chuan and must conform to these requirements. The completion of the movements must be considered a starting point for a life long journey into this ancient art. To summarize this is an ancient saying which states that “practicing a thousand times will bring about a natural understanding; practicing ten thousand times will bring about enlightenment”.

I believe in giving credit to authors whose work I reprint abridged or otherwise.  I am amiss here because I cannot find notes on where I got the original of the edited article above.  A ten point list can be found in Tai Chi for Arthritis Handbook – Paul Lam Based on writings of Yang Cheng-Fu