Over the past 38 years, I have visited and trained in China under many famous and some great but obscure masters of the internal arts. Many of them were a great inspiration to me, not only because they could demonstrate impressive martial skills but because they were good people. How do I know this, you may wonder? Most of them were very kind and generous. They cared more about the art than money and they always did what they said. Of course, some did not have high standards and I never went to train with them again. Having knowledgeable and skilled teachers is important if you want to benefit from and experience the depth of these arts. An excellent teacher can demonstrate, explain the whole picture and know how to guide you through the training.
When learning internal arts such as Tai Chi, Xinyi or Bagua, it is important to understand that they are martial arts that have integrated powerful tools for health, healing and well being. Now, when most people hear the word martial, they immediately think of violence and aggression. This is, of course, true if you have only seen the sport version. Yes, traditionally these were killing methods. However, in pursuit of the best means of defence and attack, preventing a fight is a better way to go. The Chinese words, wushu, mean martial arts. The character, wu, signifies “stopping the spear”, that is, stopping the conflict.
However, if we do engage in a physical confrontation, we must have no weakness for our opponents to take advantage of. This principle became the basic premise of high-level internal arts. To be victorious, you need to address every weakness and so begin the pursuit for perfection. The old masters looked everywhere to develop an advantage over their opponents. They drew from traditional Chinese medicine, Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, meditation, strategy, philosophy, the way that animals move and all forms of fighting arts. Eventually, they developed more sophisticated methods of training which produced better results. Internal arts such as Tai Chi, Xinyi and Bagua became the pinnacle of these pursuits. Today we are left with a rich legacy of the best in human ingenuity and understanding. For this reason, these arts are still relevant in modern society.
These arts are more than just exercise or sport which do not have a complete holistic philosophy behind them. This is not to say that exercise or sport is not useful. However, they do not train the body, mind and spirit as a whole to the extent that we can continually benefit and develop from practising the internal arts, even to old age. We talk about the three treasures: Jing, Qi and Shen. Jing is one’s essence or the body’s building blocks. Qi is the transformation of these building blocks into vital energy. Shen is a spirit which is a higher or more refined form of energy and is reflected in the whole being of one who has cultivated oneself. We are talking about a comprehensive system of development that addresses the whole being throughout one’s life.
For this transformation to take place, the first step is to know your current level of health status. You may think that you are stronger and healthier than you are. This thinking will create problems for you. If you push yourself beyond your current limits, you will cause damage to your body. Yes, if you are young and strong enough, you can recover. However, if you are older and not well, you may cause serious damage. Knowing your health status enables you to engage in a suitable training regime. Otherwise, you could do more harm than good to yourself.
Tai Chi is a good starting point as it is gentle and yet comfortably challenging enough to allow you to develop at a safe pace. A well-trained and knowledgeable instructor can see your level of health and strength by how you stand and move. If your shoulders are up, your body is leaning and you cannot sit in your legs, your body is not naturally strong. It is not about a few big muscles or a strong heart. It is about how comfortably you stand and move. These two factors tell us a lot about your health. In our system, your level of physical relaxation is a reflection of what is going on inside. If you cannot stand straight without tension, problems will probably arise in the back. If your shoulders are up, you are top-heavy and are not using your body as a whole. If you walk with a heavy step or cannot stop on one leg in mid-stride, your legs are weak, leading to poor balance and weak lower back. The above are a few of the indicators that are used to evaluate your health status.
Once you choose a suitable training workout, you then need to understand the tools that you are using. In our system, some exercises work the joints and connective tissue, some that train the energy and others that teach us how to move the body in a coordinated way. Every part of our system is interconnected. Eventually, the individual training exercises are incorporated in more sophisticated forms, such as the Tai Chi set or the Xinyi practices in Wu Dao Gong. Forms are designed to integrate the many aspects of a training system into one unified practice. Within a Tai Chi form, there seem to be many movements. However, only 8 major forces or energies govern the whole sequence. They ward off, rollback, press, push, pluck, split, elbow and shoulder strike. There are also the 5 directions which just mean being able to move in different directions and also maintaining the centre position.
Our Wu Dao Gong system is similar to Tai Chi in some ways. The forms which contain only 4 or 5 movements are more condensed and simple in practice. However, you will be refining them for many years once you learn them. This is because they contain many deep principles in terms of the mind-body connection. It takes time and effort to change and integrate these principles into our whole being. Over time, the practices become an art. They transcend fighting and forms. They become ways of understanding and enhancing self-expression. They lead to insight and a joyful state of being.
If you practise well by applying principles such as, relaxing the shoulders, sitting into the legs, maintaining a straight spine, turning the waist, coordinating the upper and lower body and keeping a calm mind, your training will change the nervous system and the body as a whole. You will be more at ease within your body. As Tai Chi and Wu Dao Gong training harmonise the two hemispheres of the brain, the rational and intellectual left side and the creative and feeling right side, you become a more integrated human being. You will discover that the way you live is enhanced by the practice. Good training will change you for the better. You will become stronger, more relaxed, more aware and more balanced. May you enjoy all the many benefits that these arts have to offer. Train well and live well!