Moving from hard to soft, from the external to the internal, from rough to smooth and from shallow to deep are all ways through which consistent training gradually refines the mind, body and spirit. Initially, you might have begun training in Tai Chi or Wu Dao Gong for health or self-defence reasons, only to discover positive change on many different levels.
In Chinese culture, there is a deep well of knowledge which springs from the experience of seeing the true nature of things. The term Dao (or transliterated as Tao) is used to express this wisdom of seeing things untainted by our preconceived ideas and conditioning. Arts such as calligraphy, painting, poetry, music and Tai Chi or any of the authentic martial arts are all doorways to discovering this truth about reality. In Japanese culture, the term Do is the same as Dao and the arts are also pursued in order to tap into this deeper part of our being.
Many of us experience a numbing of our spirit in our overly automated and technological world. We have gradually become more like the robotic extensions of machines which are designed to help us. Arts such as the above help to free us from the thinking-judging mind and allow us to become totally immersed in the moment. This experience is uplifting and liberating. It removes the constraints we have placed upon ourselves and allows an expansion of our awareness into our environment. Normally, we are so wrapped up in our own little world that we seldom sense the world around us. Our awareness is capable of expanding its boundaries and connecting with nature in a more intimate way. The guiding principles of Tai Chi and Wu Dao Gong are tools to point us in the right direction. At first, we are not aware of how far we have strayed from the true course. Our tension and fear have distorted our bodies which are in a constant state of preparedness for fight and flight. This compromises our nervous systems, eroding our immunity and depleting our energy levels. No wonder the first principle in these arts is to relax.
Learn to relax and be calm, reduce mind chatter, stand naturally without slouching or at attention, breathe naturally from your abdomen instead of from your chest, feel the weight of your body in your feet rather than in the upper torso, and feel your arms hanging naturally from the shoulders. Relaxation is not only important for your internal arts practise but extremely vital for your state of well being. Studies have shown that a prolonged period of stress exposes the body to high levels of cortisol which raises blood pressure and cholesterol levels, causes blood sugar imbalances, disrupts sleep, reduces immunity and leads to digestive problems. Relaxation counters the negative effects of stress. When practised consistently, it improves our ability to concentrate and think clearly, and our overall ability to enjoy our lives. In other words, it helps us to find balance and harmony which leads to wellness.
Another principle is to use the waist to connect the upper and lower body. Most people cannot turn from the waist comfortably. They turn from the neck and shoulders only. The waist area contains our major organs. If we move it correctly, it will gently stimulate the organs and eventually strengthen them. Using the waist when we turn will give us a greater range of movement and prevent muscle strain and other injuries. In Tai Chi and Wu Dao Gong, the waist unites the upper and lower body and enables us to generate massive amounts of power with little effort. This principle will help us to be aware and connect with our whole body, and thus allow us to feel more holistic.
The principle of using softness to overcome hardness is developed on many levels. Firstly, many of the warm-up and Qigong exercises accomplish this by loosening the body's tension. The Arm Rotation is important for ridding the shoulders and neck of stiffness, Swinging Arms loosens the waist and lower back, and Knee Rotation frees up the lower leg. Holding The Tree and San Ti take relaxation to another level. These practices also further strengthen the sinews and build strength and internal energy (qi). At a higher level, the body can perform physically demanding tasks with less effort. Self-defence applications can be applied more efficiently. This is what we mean by softness overcoming hardness. As the body adapts to training, it changes from being stiff and uncoordinated to more relaxed and natural. In terms of self-defence, it enables us to use our strength efficiently, overcoming a larger opponent with a minimum of effort. In terms of daily life, you will find yourself more able to deal with challenging situations with equanimity.
In Tai Chi, we often hear the statement, “use intention, not hard force”. In the early stages of training, this refers to the mind and awareness being applied during the practice. As a beginner, we tend to use more tension and strength than necessary. Relaxation enables us to become aware of the excessive amounts of energy we use to accomplish a task. Gradually, we rely less on extraneous strength and apply intention, feeling and qi to the movements. Eventually, this softness is used to overcome hardness in terms of dealing with an assailant. In Tai Chi, being able to neutralise the opponent’s force gives us the ability to control him with apparent ease. At an advanced stage, a master can send chills up an opponent’s spine by merely looking at him. Think of the ferocious look of a wild animal about to attack. There is a power and fearlessness that overwhelms the prey. Years of training and strong internal energy can give a high-level practitioner a great aura of power. It can also be interpreted as a positive energy that causes the aggressor to forget his negativity. These are the high levels of kung fu training. The development of focus and strength of mind is important to our health and it enables us to face the most challenging events in our daily lives.
Clearly distinguishing yin and yang is the principle of feeling where empty and solid are in the body. When the bodyweight is resting on one leg, that leg is solid while the other is empty. Eventually, every part of the body should be able to distinguish between empty and solid. Although this principle sounds easy, it is actually very hard to put into effect. Yin yang is part of the philosophical basis of Tai Chi and the harmony between yin and yang is Tai Chi. In our daily lives, keeping balance is essential for good health and well being. All excess will lead to its opposite – too much activity leads to inactivity or burn out. Being able to assess our deficiencies and excesses is a way to train the mind and practise self-discipline.
Cultivating ting jing or listening energy is the practice of developing sensitivity to our bodies and to the world around us. In the two-person exercise of Push Hands, we learn to feel when our partner is about to attack or yield. However, we can only do this when we are calm and relaxed. This awareness can be applied to all aspects of our lives. When we communicate, we often don`t really hear what the other person is saying. This leads to disconnection and misunderstanding. This kind of awareness teaches us to feel what we are doing instead of just responding with the same strength or the same level of energy to everything we do and say. So when you pour a pot of tea, feel the weight of the teapot. When walking, stay aware of your balance. When you relate to others, remember to listen.
The last principle is learning to maintain a state of equilibrium. In the Tai Chi form, this is being aware of the body centre. Good posture allows a smoother flow of blood and energy throughout the body. A leaning posture indicates a weakness in the body, such as fear which may cause us to lean backwards or lift our shoulders, or aggression which may bring the body forwards and distort the facial muscles. Keeping central equilibrium means being able to maintain our balance and integrity under difficult circumstances. This state is as much a mental state as it is a physical one. In Tai Chi, we practise standing exercises such as Holding the Tree and San Ti which teach us how to stand well and strengthen the muscles, ligaments and sinews. In daily life, keep an awareness of your posture. Notice when you are leaning or distorting your posture. Learn to maintain a centred state of mind – not over-reacting to or losing awareness of what is happening in the moment. The great sage Chuang Tzu advises us to open our minds and accept whatever happens. He suggests that we maintain our equilibrium in all our actions.
Training in class only constitutes a small amount of our practice time. Training is really an expression of ourselves in life. Ultimately, it becomes a part of us and allows us to flourish in every aspect of our lives.