In Tai Chi or Wu Dao Gong, our training is designed to transform the body from tension to relaxation, weakness to strength, lethargic to energetic and uncoordinated to coordinated. We achieve this through a process of static, semi-static and dynamic exercises that loosen, stretch, strengthen, integrate and align the entire body. The initial exercises are done slowly and deliberately to foster awareness of how our bodies move. This helps us to avoid moving mechanically. Some of the first advice we hear in Chinese health and martial arts is to know yourself. This alludes to being aware of our strengths and weaknesses. We first need to know how well or how poorly our bodies move.
When we begin learning the Tai Chi form or any of the Wu Dao Gong practices, we quickly realise how uncoordinated we are. Initially, we can focus only on the whole movement, not the individual parts. It is the strength, flexibility and awareness of each joint that allows us to move in a coordinated flowing way. In our training, we concentrate more on the body’s connective tissues rather than on the muscles. The reason is that the connective tissues and joints are often weak. To train them, we learn to gently relax the muscles that support them, thereby allowing the connective tissues to be affected by the exercise. Once the connective tissues become stronger, a more integrative structural strength is developed, allowing the muscles to relax and engage only when necessary. We continue to train the muscles but in a more integrative way. We aim to build muscles that can change from a relaxed state to an active state in a fraction of a second. The muscles appear lithe and well defined rather than bulky and thick.
The twisting and rotating of joints in Tai Chi training are known as chan si or silk reeling. This practice will gradually stretch and strengthen the joints and connective tissues, thus greatly improving flexibility and strength.
One of the keys in terms of producing power is full-body coordination. There are sayings in martial arts classics which refer to the ability to coordinate the body as one unit. For example, “When one part of the body moves, the whole body moves.” “The whole body is linked together like a string of pearls.” “When we fa jin (issue explosive power), the whole body must integrate so that even the hair on the head will stand up.” Connecting and moving the whole body together can generate enormous power. When training, you need to pay attention to alignment. Correct posture and structure are fundamental to good health and lay a strong foundation for the application of any self-defence techniques.
The main requirements for establishing correct alignment are spine straight but not rigid, shoulders relaxed, sinking into the inguinal groove in the hips, knees bent in line with the toes (not exceeding the toes) and elbows pointing down. One of the principles of the Tai Chi classics states that we should feel as if the crown of the head is hanging from a thread and the whole body feels as if it is hanging loosely from this point. This tells us not to use tension when adjusting our posture. Changes need to be done gradually and over time.
Tai Chi principles and movements point to ways to increase our awareness of the way we move. The analogy of the sculpture is often used. Instead of adding to his block, the artist chips away until a spirited shape is revealed. According to Lao Tzu, in pursuit of material success, the daily increase is needed. On the other hand, in pursuit of Tao, the daily decrease is required. We often think that more is better. In Tai Chi, we refine our excess until we can express more with less. The practice is the gradual chipping away of the dross to reveal inner beauty – a way to transform weaknesses into strengths.