In the last couple of trips to China, Chief Instructor Brett Wagland was very glad to have the opportunity to meet Chen Xiang. Before training in the Hun Yuan system, Chen Xiang trained in Chinese wrestling. He is now a senior disciple of Grandmaster Feng Zhi Qiang, founder of the Hun Yuan system. Chen Xiang is an inspiration. He is accomplished in free fighting yet he is gentle and humble. Through his internal training, his hands, to the touch, seem as soft as cotton. He is deeply immersed in the philosophy of Lao Tzu.
In one of their meetings, Chen Xiang talked about the five stages of development with one’s Tai Chi form. The first stage is most relevant to students at present.
Feeling Comfortable and Natural
Learning Tai Chi or anything worthwhile involves effort and time. The effort involved requires a more patient or gradual approach rather than an all-or-nothing attitude. In Chinese culture, the concept of “kung fu” is important in terms of self-development. Kung Fu is the idea of applying a continuous effort over some time until one has understood and eventually mastered the task. It is more of a journey or process rather than an outcome. During the process, besides learning a skill, we are affected by what we learn. We are gradually transformed by the learning of that skill.
In the case of Tai Chi, most students will feel initial frustration about learning and remembering the form. They are not used to the idea of practising regularly. At first, the mind and body are not accustomed to the requirements expected of them. It is common to feel awkward and unnatural at first. These experiences are completely natural.
Gradually, with practice, things change. Our minds and bodies become more at home with the training and we begin to enjoy the process. Once we can enter into a state of calm and feel the qi (internal energy) in our bodies, we begin to enjoy the practice. We feel like a fish swimming with the ocean currents or as if we are swimming in the air. Our bodies are enveloped by qi.
In the Hun Yuan Tai Chi form, each movement flows into the next in an endless circle of energy. The first stage of learning involves remembering the individual movements which are all based on the following Tai Chi principles:
- Keep the spine straight and relaxed - not tense.
- Bend your knees to enable weight transfer.
- Let your weight sink down to the soles of the feet - not held in the upper body o the thighs. Develop natural weight transfer – from the ground to the ground.
- Legs are the foundation. Each movement starts from the legs to the waist (which also enables the spine to rotate) and then to the arms. The waist controls the upper body. Avoid leaning with the upper body.
- Distinguish between empty and solid. Control your centre of gravity. Step out empty with no weight, so that you may be able to retrieve your step if necessary.
- Be aware of relaxing the shoulders.
- Use the minimum amount of strength to move the body. Anything more is tension. Relax, relax, relax .........
- Coordinate the lower and the upper body.
- Distinguish between open and close within the movement. Feel your back and chest. Avoid leaning.
- Use your mind, that is, your intention, to lead the movement.
Chen Xiang said, “When you watch someone performing Tai Chi who has reached the first stage, it is very pleasing to the eyes. There is a sense of enjoyment being expressed by the practitioner. The body is relaxed, coordinated and full of energy. The practitioner looks very comfortable. Each movement is expressed clearly without blurring into the next, with the mind (intention) and qi finishing with each posture. However, continuity in movement, in intention and qi is maintained throughout the form. It might take one twelve months to reach this level.”
Once one has finished the Hun Yuan 24 form, it is good to practise the form continuously for three rounds daily. This will enable your whole body to change quickly. Then, you will understand what it means to feel comfortable and natural in the form. I am sure that you all will be able to reach this level.
The second stage is to know all the applications of each movement. When we talk about the martial applications of Tai Chi, we are referring to the eight major forces: pung, Ju, Ji, an, Tsia, li, Jou, Khor (ward off, rollback, press, push, uproot, split, elbow, shoulder/upper back).
The practise of Push Hands (Tui Shou) helps the practitioner to understand the forces. This is sensitivity and coordination training. Through Push Hands, one learns the meaning of using only four ounces of strength to deflect a thousand pounds. In other words, it is not the training of brute strength or force, but of skill, sensitivity and timing. Through contact with awareness, one becomes familiar with another person’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as one’s own. Gradually, through practice, one will become familiar with the eight forces and how they are applied.
Tai Chi is not simply a system of healthy exercise. It also develops internal strength and skills which are used at the martial level. In traditional Chinese culture, health, medicine, philosophy and self-defence are all interrelated. The Yin Yang symbol depicts the interdependence of seemingly contradictory forces. So, to know only the health aspect of Tai Chi without its martial application is like knowing the yin without the yang. The knowledge gained from the applications of the movements not only helps one in one’s quest for self-development but also opens doors to higher levels of the art.
Be patient and kind to yourself. Listen to your heart. Be mindful to avoid imposing limits or unrealistic expectations on yourself. Practise and you will naturally reap the benefits. Let go and enjoy the Tai Chi journey!