After 47 years of practicing and studying taijiquan, and 37 years of teaching, my age, long-forgotten injuries, and health compelled me to evaluate the results of my practice from a new viewpoint. Focusing on my state of body, mind, and spirit—instead on my level of skill, such as it is—I applied a five-element yogic model to myself as a “quality assurance tool,” a test of my ongoing process. This exercise enabled me to discover critical blind spots in my understanding of taijiquan , and simultaneously enhanced aspects of the art that I had been wondering about for years. I discovered opportunities for deepening and enriching my practice and found myself humbled as I learned, once again, that the gifts of taijiquan really do come from an effortless place within.
The discussion below presents my conclusions. It compares and contrasts the five elements as seen from the Tai Chi and Yogic viewpoints, drawing from The Yellow Emperor’s Classic on Chinese Medicine; Wayson Liao’s compilation of the Tai Chi Classics; Zhang Yun’s writings on Jin in T’ai Chi Magazine; Lu K’uan Lu’s Taoist Yoga; Tai Chi, by Cheng M’an ching and Robert Smith; Taijiquan, Classical Yang Style by Yang, Jwing Ming; The Secret of the Golden Flower, as translated by Richard Wilhelm; Douglas Wile’s compilation and translation of the Yang Family Secret Transmissions; Godfrey Devereux’s Dynamic Yoga; Douglas Field’s ground-breaking work The Other Brain; direct communications from my teachers, Cheng M’an ching, William C. C. Chen, Masahiro Nakazono, Jack Worsley; and my own limited experience.
Conclusion: You can, it seems, teach an old dog new tricks; just take your time.
Yogic Alchemy In Taijiquan
By Greg Brodsky
I like to ask beginning students what they want from their new investment in taijiquan. A great majority of them say something about “balance.” They don’t mean physical balance, although that comes with good practice. They want inner balance, a way to weather the storms of this tumultuous world without being drained or defeated, a way to manage themselves that keeps them from forgetting who they are and what is important to them as they strive to make their lives what they want them to be. They hope that taijiquan practice will enable them to tune their minds and bodies over time like instruments, enabling them to become stronger and more resilient and, whether they realize it or not at the onset, more true to their inner natures.
In all systems of human endeavor, such self-tuning makes the difference between an ordinary practitioner and an extraordinary one. If we can tune ourselves, we can learn to relax while we discover how the world works, to listen, to grasp the pattern of events, to become sensitive to early warning signals of many kinds, and to make essential course-corrections in our thinking and behavior without having to crash into too many of society’s walls. The better we can be at tuning ourselves, the better will be our entire experience of being.
This critical element becomes increasingly important as we mature, especially in our later years. Maturing toward mastery, our ongoing practice of self-tuning enables us to dissolve unhealthy tensions in our bodies and rigidity in our minds. Relaxing more deeply each year, we can find a little extra space in our aging joints, a space that gains value with every passing day. Having learned to enhance our gaze (addressed in the section on Drushti, below) and free ourselves from the tyranny of runaway emotions, we can see more clearly, even as our eyesight grows dimmer. These enhancements come to us because we continually tune ourselves like a musician tunes her instrument, day after day, after day.
Even the fighter within us comes into balance. The gongfu (martial arts skill) in our art gives us a unique kind of pleasure, but the deeper product of years of practice is the state of mind/body that we bring to our families, colleagues, and communities. Through our practice, we tune our very state of being. In this sense, for us, taijiquan is a yoga as well as a martial art.
Since 1964, taijiquan had captured me, humbled me, confounded me, and challenged every instinct with which I grew up. I had practiced hatha yoga for a few years in the 60s as an adjunct to a much more serious dedication to meditation. Now exploring the missing or counter-productive parts of my method, and seeing that some of my colleagues practice both taiji and yoga, I took a second look at that ancient art. Several friends who were also taiji teachers told me that, for them, taiji and yoga had blended into a single discipline. Fortunately, one of them was my co-teacher and wife, Ching B. Brodsky, who provided an admirable example.
In examining that “single discipline,” I had to separate and then compare the principles of each art. To be fair in my comparison, I put the gongfu aspect aside in order to focus on the straightforward benefits to body, mind, and spirit; but, I could not put it far. Among the great treasures hidden within taijiquan, there are those that can only be realized by “tasting bitter,” “investing in loss,” and “listening to and following one’s opponent;” these secrets become known to us in ways that we cannot imagine until something goes still and silent inside. I explore this phenomenon below.
But first, how does taijiquan measure up as a yoga?
Hatha is Yang-Yin
The word yoga means “union.”1 The practice of hatha yoga attempts to create the union of polar opposites in the way that taijiquan seeks to establish a dynamic balance between yin and yang. Ha means “sun” (yang) and tha means “moon” (yin) so “sun-moon union” translates to “yang-yin reconciliation.”
According to yoga philosophy, until we achieve this reconciliation we exist in a state of inner conflict. Perceiving an “either-or” world, we cling to one end of an eternal polarity and reject the other. Unable to experience the unity of the greater whole, we feel exposed, isolated, and unsafe out on our personally chosen pole, as though we were clinging to the limb of an enormous tree. The very act of being makes us anxious because we try to fit in while unconsciously separating ourselves from essential parts of the world in which we live.
After years of pattern-challenging and consciousness-raising practices, we realize that our separation is an illusion. We see our own behavioral patterns in others, no matter how annoying that insight can be. If we become courageous enough to admit it, we also realize that every model of reality, every idea about what is real and true are simply models. We awaken to the fact that as human beings, we have neither the mental machinery nor the emotional horsepower to grasp the true nature of the vast and unimaginable universe. We accept the fact that our reality model can never be anything more than a limited construct among billions of others.
Ironically, this awakening makes it possible to achieve union within ourselves and union with the world. Over time, knowing that we can’t know leads us to still and silent attentiveness to what is within and around us. Rather than continually trying to change anything about ourselves, we accept that we remain what we always were. Our table manners might have improved through our many years of effort; our skills might have become acceptable over the last 50 years; but when we realize that we simply are, dualism can become oneness.
This idea parallels taoist and taiji alchemy very nicely. The taoist seeks to resonate with the very movement of the universe. The way that cannot be named can be lived. We practice to become quiet enough to “hear” the intentions of others, sensitive enough to feel forces previously unknown to us, and still within ourselves whether our bodies are in motion or not. Our practice settles and expands our sphere of thought until we experience the polarity and unity of yin and yang. The words of the great sage, Lao-tzu, inspire us: “To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.”
Both yoga and taijiquan offer breathing and movement exercises, meditative processes, behavioral injunctions, and other disciplines that propose to cultivate such stillness; both seek to prolong the life and enhance the health of the practitioner. For adepts of both systems, the path is one of inner transformation that eventually leads to outer transformation. In this, taiji and yoga are the same.
Looking into the cosmologies that support these beliefs, our scope expands beyond such practices as yoga and taijiquan. The five-element models considered below form the bedrock of Chinese and Indian cultures, most significantly where their systems of medicine are concerned.
Both Chinese and Indian philosophies organize the characteristics of life into a polarity.1 Practitioners of various arts seek to balance energies considered positive (sun, yang) and negative (moon, yin). Here, positive does not mean “good,” with negative becoming “bad.” They are simply characteristics, such as a positive electrical charge, for example, or negative (empty) space.
Both cultures further organize their reality model into five essential elements, each of which has its own positive and negative attributes. The Chinese model identifies wood, fire, earth, metal, and water;2 the Indian model, respectively: ether, fire, earth, air, and water.3 Exploring the comparative depths of these elements is beyond the scope of this article, but understanding how the yogic use of them can apply to taiji practice proves handy.
The names and foci of the yogic elements are:
Drushti (space, ether)
Asana (structure, alignment, earth)
Vinyasa (quality of movement, water)
Pranayama (quality of breathing, air)
Bandha (energetic transformation, fire).4
With these criteria in mind, let’s look at how one organizes and approaches the work we do in practicing taijiquan. The reader is invited to examine your own practice to identify comparable, conflicting, and perhaps, missing elements.
Drushti: The Mind’s Eye
Drushti, the element of ether, determines the context in which one lives. Loosely analogous to wood in the Chinese medical model, which governs an individual’s capacity for planning and decision-making, drushti describes a person’s attention, intention, or awareness. Your drushti determines the “gaze” through which you perceive your situation and your purpose in it.
When playing1 taijiquan through a yogic gaze, I find that people ease into a growing awareness of previously unidentified paths to inner peace. There is no enemy; one sees the divine in others and learns as they learn; one practices surrender to that which embodies everything. When playing through the gongfu gaze, especially for those who have strong instincts about martial arts and who require of themselves combat-proven achievement of extraordinary ability, such achievement might form the very path itself. Still others, as has been the case for me, can find themselves satisfied by the inner and outer game of metaphorical combat and disciplined playfulness that martial arts provide, much in the spirit of bear cubs rolling on a grassy hillside, enthusiastically locked in each others’ jaws while never intending to cause real harm. Like other natural animals, we want to develop our innate survival tools and abilities; as culturally conscious and moral animals, we wish to never need to use these tools in earnest.
If, as a student, one’s mind’s eye focuses on cultivating playfulness and mutual well-being, he is already practicing taijiquan as a yoga, an exercise of union. This drushti creates agility in the body/mind, and because one takes oneself lightly, enables you to move lightly on your feet.
I also find that in taiji form practice, a yogic frame of mind enables a person to learn while simultaneously enjoying a healthy sense of self-acceptance. One must begin with what is, and this acceptance or recognition of that which already exists within oneself provides a sound foundation. Rather than complacency, such a willing acceptance can promote exquisite attention to what you are doing as you become aware of your body’s position in space—head, hands, feet, hips, shoulders, knees, elbows—as well as spinal alignment, quality of movement, breathing, thinking, and in time, the intrinsic energies moving through your body. The demands that you place on yourself, while dedicated to drawing out the best in you, are gentle, even loving. Such is the nature of true yogic drushti.
By contrast, one might approach yoga or taijiquan or any other practice as a performance art. The competitor in us wants to win; the insatiable ego wants to be recognized, to outdo others while insisting that we continually surpass our previous performances. We expect to “get it” quickly, and are dismayed—instead of intrigued—to find that our chosen path might confound us for years, maybe forever. We bring pressure into our practice that, while generally useful in excellence-oriented contexts like sports, can become the very opposite of our long-term purpose.
As students, excellence demands that we walk a thin line between driving ourselves and cultivating ourselves. The compulsively driving mindset, a psychological characteristic of many educational and cultural traditions, assumes that the student is lazy or mediocre by nature and must be whipped into shape, driven to develop, forced out of the comfort zone. The teacher has to push, even humiliate each student into stepping beyond his limitations, and as students we sustain the harsh voices of our most vehement teachers in our heads long after they are gone. Instead of union, we try to learn through constantly self-evaluating pressure.
In this state of mind, our mistakes embarrass us. We try learning while feeling self-conscious about not knowing what we don’t yet know. Our practice is never good enough, and the eye of our teacher makes us feel vulnerable and inadequate.
Many ancient schools have fostered this approach to training with the intent of toughening and enabling students to overcome their weaknesses. In their most philosophical contexts, they taught that real victory was “victory over the self.” In their more misguided moments, they simply taught ways to brutalize self and others under the rubric of learning.
After 30 or 40 years of training, I find, one comes to realize that victory over the self is an illusion. We might develop tremendous discipline, and we might push ourselves beyond our limitations to achievements far beyond our wildest childhood dreams; but we conquer nothing within. Real maturity means discovering what we are, coming to peace with it, and simply ending any form of war with ourselves. Inner peace enables us to cultivate better habits and prune away our worst ones in sustainable, low-maintenance ways. Instead of fighting with ourselves, we learn how to genuinely update our ideas and behaviors like a masterful engineer updates a piece of software. Because what we are is no longer under siege, we discover and reconcile with our inner demons. When we do, they become allies, willing participants in our continued evolution as human beings.
Cultivation is the operant word here. Inner cultivation occurs as a slow, nurturing, fearlessly honest process of realizing how we think and behave, responding more sensitively to the world around us, recognizing the feelings that attune us to our true nature and purpose in life, trusting these feelings, optimizing them, and acting on them. The mind that watches and directs this process is our drushti.
Imagine yourself at tai chi camp on the Big Island of Hawaii.1 The hot, tropically aromatic air melts your very bones as you find yourself among 50 or so practitioners of various ages and skill levels have come from different parts of the world to dedicate their waking hours to practicing taijiquan together. Some are just beginning. For others, this is their 15th camp and a chance to mix it up with some good boxers.
The teacher, Grandmaster William C. C. Chen, shows the group how to throw a punch. An astonishing boxer, he demonstrates a straight right several times with explanations, then asks everyone to try it themselves. Surveying the group for a few moments, he picks a 50-something woman who clearly has no martial arts background and asks her to show what she can do.
“We’re looking at Shirley” (not her real name), he says. “Go ahead.”
Shirley punches, appropriately looking like she’s never done this before.
“Yes!” Chen exclaims, with enthusiasm. “That’s great. Now, just do it again and drop your shoulder.”
Shirley punches again, dropping her shoulder.
“Yes!” he exclaims again, with enough enthusiasm to get her grinning. “Now, just bend your knee.”
She punches; he acknowledges and corrects her. She punches again; he encourages her more and makes additional corrections. By the time she has thrown a dozen punches, she starts to get the idea. He never tells her “no.”
William Chen does not tell her that she has perfected the move. He repeatedly declares “Yes!” to her effort. It takes courage for her to try in front of this group, to learn something foreign to her background, to listen to feedback and apply it. He knows what he is doing: building her spirit, expanding the space in which she can learn, cultivating her drushti.
Asana: Sound Structure
Asana means “alignment,”5 and all the postures that yogis practice are called asanas. These are not static poses, but instead dynamic combinations of opposing and balancing forces that send spirals of energy through the body to awaken its cellular intelligence.
In the yoga of taiji, we find cellular intelligence in the jin (intrinsic strength6), which is the very nature of our cells expressing their collective power. We become adept at sensing and cultivating this natural power when we relax, focus our minds on a single action, and take that action in ways that passively compress our bones and tissues along a line that starts in our foot or feet, runs through our legs and spine, and ends in one hand, both hands, or the other foot, when kicking, for example.
The line being compressed is the line of jin, the internal hardness hidden within an envelope of softness. Our jin is the intrinsic strength of our cells. Compare this to untrained extrinsic effort, or li (raw force), which is not part our cells’ essential nature and so demands actively exerted force.
We find our jin by becoming mentally quiet and physically relaxed enough to feel the strength that is already there, then moving in ways that optimize that strength. This means we let our jin influence our movements in the way that the heft of a sword influences how we wield it. In this state of attentiveness, we “listen” to the jin.
Walking, standing, and jumping provide straightforward ways to understand this idea. Your body knows just how much you need to firm up each muscle in order to stand. If you jump, you don’t have to think about how much to tense and which muscles to tense when you land. Your body already knows.7
This is somatic intelligence, jin in action. Translating your body’s wisdom from these mundane actions into the elegant movements of taijiquan is your path to internal power. Recognizing that the practitioner does not move by magic, but by physiology and kinetics in which muscles contract to move bones into alignment, we can pay attention to what actually happens in our bodies when we move with coordinated ease and power. Our attentiveness enables us to blend metaphor (what we are thinking) and mechanics (what we are doing) in ways that make us move more competently. While, for years, we might focus primarily on relaxing, we don’t relax completely; if we did, we would fall to the floor in a heap. We relax selectively so unnecessary tensions dissolve and necessary ones occur, giving us essential hardness with no sense of effort.
You cannot cultivate this hardness—internal jin—by trying to be strong.1 Effort and force lead to excessive tension that masks the very power you are trying to discover. Instead, you cultivate internal jin by aligning your body—guided by gravity—so that in each moment you can feel the force vector that extends from your substantial foot through your dantian (lower abdomen) and spine to your hands, relaxing everything that is not on this vector, and activating it through thought.2
Your interpretation of a movement—a push, for example—defines the line of force being delivered through your body; your qi (bioenergy) then gets your body parts in place to deliver it. But qi, being directed by your conscious mind, is distinct from the jin that you can only discover.
In this sense of discovery, you cultivate jin by getting out of its way. As you align the firm line from foot to fingers in each taiji movement, you think of the line being passively compressed as it joins its real or imaginary target. Instead of feeling effort when you apply a move, you have the sensation of letting go. This sensation occurs whether you are uprooting a training partner or practicing form on your own.
To sense this in solo practice, students are advised to imagine applying the moves to an actual person; your intention to “apply” the move will define a line of firmness between your root and your virtual opponent. Don’t tense this line; just visualize it connecting your foot to your contact point—your fingers, for example—in a way that compresses you into your foot. Relax, and let the firmness reveal itself to you. This takes the power out of neuron-driven muscle tension (effort) and puts it into the “sinews” (non-neuronal glial cells that exist throughout the body, most notably in this case, in the spine and nervous system).8
To find the same sensation in push hands, which requires seriously tempering your ego, you might imagine your partner to be a mirror of yourself: your beneficent twin. Instead of trying to uproot an opponent, imagine letting your beneficent twin compress you from time to time; no effort, no winning, just joining your twin and aligning yourself between him/her and the earth so that your twin’s mass compresses you into the earth. When your twin gets uprooted, it’s not because you tried to do anything; you just happened to be there when your partner got overly ambitions and self-uprooted.
Cheng Man-ching taught, “Play form as if you were with an opponent; play push-hands as if you were alone.”9 While this practice takes a disciplined imagination and can prove psychologically challenging, it awakens your awareness of the jin that embodies your somatic intelligence. The hard within the soft awakens the bright within you where your brightness might have been clouded by social conditioning.
Alone or with others, you cultivate jin —as well as qi—by practicing congruency in your thoughts and actions. This means that you do one thing at a time and pay attention to what you are doing. Recognizing and practicing congruency reduces habitual, chronic tensions and extends through your taiji forms, interactive exercises, every day societal encounters, personal behaviors, and meditations. As you learn to calm your busy thoughts, you can develop single-mindedness. As you learn to move with gravity-aligned balance, you will discover the power waiting in your cells. In time, you find that single-minded—unconflicted—jin is intelligent in the sense that it keeps you from doing stupid things to yourself; it is always economical, simple, respectful of physical reality, and present, if you can become mentally and emotionally still enough in yourself to feel it.
Yoga calls this stillness “dying in the posture.”10 Yogis put themselves into shapes that challenge their chronic tension patterns, then stay there for a specified time based on the body’s needs and capacity to respond. When the bodymind has let go, one has “died” in the posture. Waiting for this moment takes tremendous discipline and loving, non-competitive, unambitious patience. The taiji version occurs during standing-posture practices and in the moment of release that happens in form practice each time you reach the peak or energized part of a movement.11
While much of yoga’s somatic opening occurs on a mat, yogis also rely on standing postures to bring the body back together. Master practitioner Godfrey Devereux declares, “Of all the yoga postures, the most important for awakening somatic intelligence are the standing postures.”12 The yogic idea of alignment in these postures is opened, connected, engaged, energized, and balanced.
Vinyasa: The Quality of Movement
Most people think of yoga practice as “stretching.” This superficial idea misses the point in the same way as interpreting taijiquan’s goal to be “relaxing.” While we de-tense to release and open our joints (sung: to “unbind”) we do so to enliven and empower our movement. In the way that yoga seeks to awaken the body/mind, taiji seeks to generate extraordinarily powerful, effortless action that leads to the same awakening: the awakening of our inner power and the cultivation of the spirit that gives us life.
Yogis can hurt themselves by forcing themselves to stretch, and taiji players hurt themselves by forcing themselves into stances that are too low for them, tucking the tailbone too far forward, forcing or resisting during push-hands, and a myriad of creatively destructive ways of holding knees, necks, and shoulders in unnatural positions. Over time, practicing your forms with a mix of yogic and taiji consciousness can change those habits and bring about therapeutic changes.
Vinyasa means “to place [the body] in a special way.”13 It refers to the order in which one practices asanas and the quality of movement and breathing with which the practitioner goes from posture to posture. Here, yoga more resembles qigong (qi cultivation) than taijiquan, because rather than just gaining the outcome of enhancing qi, the quan part also seeks to develop martial arts effectiveness. With it, we gain the personal equanimity that comes from dealing with one’s ego in relationship to others, friendly or otherwise.
Neither yoga nor taiji is about posing. In the same way that the asanas are dynamic states of balanced forces, the taiji postures are snapshots of moments in a continuum, conveniently named so we can talk about them. No two pushes are alike, just as no two situations are alike. We just think that we are doing the same movement over and over again, when in fact we are setting up a set of actions and launching them without knowing precisely where and how they will complete themselves. When you are present in your practice, despite the fact that you have done a move a thousand times, each time is unique.
Nor is taiji form about moving slowly, but rather about operating in such a way that we optimize our most powerful natural energies: life force, intrinsic strength, spirit. We learn to sense and cultivate those energies when we develop a state of mind that approaches mindfulness meditation. This could involve quick or slow or no movement at all, but it just happens that we find it easier to cultivate this state when we move slowly. Once awakened, we can exercise our mindfulness no matter what we are doing.
With these different intentions noted, the principles of movement are similar: relax and open the joints; elongate your spine from the top of your head downward; surrender to gravity in both your vertical alignment and in your movements; link your movements together in such a way that each movement creates the one that follows; breathe freely; focus; be present.
Pranayama: The Quality of Breathing
Pranayama is the practice of energetic regulation through the breath.14 Prana is essentially qi, and ayam loosely translates to “extension.” Practices for personal transformation through energetic regulation date back thousands of years, and all consider breathing to be a primary tool.
Some yoga employs audible breathing (ujjayi), which, because of the throat tension it requires, is not recommended when practicing taijiquan. According to classical instructions, taijiquan calls for slow, silent, long, and thin breathing during form practice, and, often, the use of compressive sound during fast movement or qigong. Exceptions abound to this statement, so it appears here as a rule of thumb. Whatever the practice, students are advised to breathe freely.
In applying yogic principles to taiji practice, we confront the chicken/egg question: which comes first, the breath or the movement? If we momentarily set aside the schools that say, “don’t worry about the breathing; it will come naturally,” or, “just breathe naturally,” we can ask what, precisely, the relationship is between breath and movement in taiji.
Conscious, “compression breathing” provides each movement with a pneumatic boost.15 William Chen taught me about compression breathing, but my personal conviction about it comes from studying breathing when doing physical work (gaining added power), when my spine became injured (bracing the spine), with older people (facilitating movement), when we are surprised or excited (we inhale), when passively relaxing (even my dog lets out a sigh when she is done running around), and when decompressing and compressing my body in practicing taiji form.
With compression and decompression in mind, I contend that the chicken—that is, the movement—comes first and dictates how one should breathe. My favorite test is to ask a person to go from a seated to a standing position and experiment with different ways of breathing: inhaling, exhaling, or holding. The reader is invited to try these and see which way feels most natural and powerful.
But let’s ask the opposite question: if you were standing and suddenly your knees caved in as if you were passing out, what would happen to the air in your body? Would your lungs fill with air? Or, would the air in your lungs be expelled without you trying to exhale? Then, if you caught yourself half way down, how would you breathe to regain yourself?
I propose that you would lose air as you fell and inhale as you recovered, catching your breath as you caught yourself from further falling. By testing breathing in a wide variety of situations, experimental and practical, I have come to the conclusion that natural breathing in the slow practice of tai chi form means inhaling when you extend your body and exhaling when you flex it.1
Cheng Man-ching’s instructions on the matter of breathing during form practice consisted of inhaling when the arms move up and away from the body and exhaling when the arms move down and close to the body.16 William C. C. Chen is much more explicit about using the breath, instructing his students to exhale just before each energized move (the “applied” part) in the form, and to gently inhale to compress the dantian as the move is energized (“applied”). When demonstrating fast punches, he almost always lets out a sound, releasing compressed air, but not simply exhaling.
Bandha: Energetic Transformation
Bandha means “seal” or “lock,”17 and, like the gates and internal channels of taijiquan and Taoist meditation, the bandhas of yoga are thought to open certain energetic doors in the body while closing others. Taoist alchemists and yogis consider these to be spiritual openings through which one can enter dimensions of being that can’t be accessed by ordinary means. Because traditional explanations can prove arcane, we are best served here by comparing only a few generalized commonalities of yogic and Taoist models and in keeping our terms as anatomical as possible.
Also, a disclaimer: esoteric schools sometimes offer promises that few, if any, fulfill. Immortality is hard to come by; tantric transmutation into pure white light might require batteries; astonishing stories of physics-defying qi rarely pass the test of public scrutiny. When delving into the transformative aspects of taijiquan, the less magical is often more reliable.
With that caveat in mind, exercising the bandhas in your taiji practice can liberate considerable energy. One can introduce oneself to this practice by standing comfortably with feet parallel to each other and your outer ankles aligned with your hips. Too wide will create unnecessary tension, and too narrow might feel unstable. Relax and bend your knees a little.
Begin by thinking about the highest point of the top of your head. This is the area from which you “suspend your head from above,” the crown chakra (energy center) in yoga, the upper dantian (ni wan) in Taoist yoga, and associated with the bai hui point (Hundred Meetings) of the energetic Governing Vessel that runs up the back of your body in Chinese medicine.18 Here, you maintain part of your attention, a sense of lightness, as if you were being both gently pulled and reaching upward at the same time. As the Secret of the Golden Flower puts it, “The silver moon stands in the middle of Heaven.”19
Building on this light feeling, gently expand the space between the base of your skull and the back of your neck. When you “empty the chest and raise the back,”20 a sense of fullness and softness begins here. At the same time, imagine your whole head floating upward, away from your shoulders, which gently drop to your sides. Think “long spine, wide frame.”
Extending your attention downward to the seventh cervical vertebra, which is known as the “Great Hammer” in Chinese medicine, relax the base of your neck. This is the posterior portion of the yogic throat chakra, which is thought to be the seat of your personality. Here, the forward curve of your neck starts to become the backward curve of your torso, and so presents a stress point, a gate that closes with tension and that opens through gentle, relaxed elongation. Preparing to yawn without actually yawning is a simple way to begin to open this point.
The backward curve of your torso switches to a forward curve at the 12th thoracic vertebra, the last one that has ribs attached to it, and the backdrop to your heart chakra and middle dantian (heart center). If you think of the space between this vertebra and the one below it, the first lumbar, gently expanding, the curve naturally flattens an appropriate amount and this gate opens. Do this without effort by breathing into your heart. A good sigh goes a long way here.
The lumbar spine meets your sacrum around the level of your hips. By continuing to think about elongation, you can align this juncture a little more vertically. As implied earlier, you don’t need to tuck your sacrum as much as to drop it so that you feel like you are sitting. This promotes the release of your kua and flattens your low back just the right amount.
Now, hang there, sensing your lower dantian and thinking long spine, wide frame. The only work you should feel is in your thighs, depending on how much your knees are bent. The burning in your thighs is what tasting bitter feels like. Your spine is elongated and its gates are open: minimal tension, optimal alignment with gravity, and the energy can flow.
From here, continue to widen your frame. This occurs at your shoulder and hips, and can include your eyes, cheek bones, ribs, and pelvis. Imagine your shoulders falling to the sides as you softly “smile” across the clavicles. Simultaneously rotate your clavicles back toward your shoulder blades as you gently release those blades to fall down towards your posterior ribs. “Plucking up the back21” doesn’t mean becoming slightly hunchback; it means filling the back with qi by thinking about the energy that runs up the back as you align and relax. Lengthening your spine and smiling into your shoulders as just described facilitates this movement of energy.
Regarding the pelvis, some schools advocate contracting the perineum. I find this unnecessary, being an appropriately neurotic product of Western culture, and prefer to smile across the pelvis instead. This pelvic smile automatically causes the pelvic floor to raise a little, gently engages the abdominal muscles, and supports the lumbar spine better than trying to contract the perineum. To find the smiling muscle, which is the transversus abdominus, just bend forward a tiny bit and press your thumbs into your abdomen at a point half way between your navel and pubic bone, about two inches to each side. Press firmly, then cough. The muscle that you feel contracting when you cough is the transversus.
Now smile across the clavicles and pelvis, and you have a “wide frame.”
Long spine, wide frame provides the basis of taiji’s bandha or transformational energy work. The next step is in the spirals and gates in your arms and legs.
Bandhas and Gates
Taiji literature describes the “nine pearls,”22 namely: the wrist, elbow, shoulder, ankle, knee, hip, and the three major curves of the spine. These are the gates that open to release qi and close to contain it. When open, the gates decompress, elongate, and loosen as we have just done. When closed, the gates compress and express the firmness of jin. In taiji practice, your task is to align your skeleton so that the force vector that passes through your body travels easily and naturally from foot to hand, connecting the gates in between. Peter Ralston describes it as “lining up the billiard balls.”
Having long been confused by the descriptions in the Classics—e.g., what do I do with “When the outer gate opens, the inner gate closes?”—I have often found myself experimenting with the gates. Once I realized that jin felt different from qi, statements like, “Where there is no qi there is pure hardness” started to make sense. Distinguishing more sensitively between substantial and insubstantial helped as well, as did a deeper surrender to gravity. Bottom line: relax everything that is not working, and without effort, sense and direct your qi with thought and listen to the jin.
Once your spine is aligned and elongated, next come the spirals that move through your arms and legs as you energize your moves. The task is to feel the lines through which jin and qi operate.
To sense these lines, take any comfortable stance and focus your mind on one leg. As you feel that foot pressing into the floor, imagine that you are gently rotating your lower leg inward (toward the center of your body, and into the base of your big toe) along the axis of your bones while rotating your upper leg outward to the sides. Don’t move anything, most notably your knees; just add a little tone to the lower leg one way (inward) and to the upper leg the other way (outward). Gently tense the tiniest bit with these rotations in mind.
It will feel like you are creating dynamic tension in your leg, and you are. This engages the bandha of the leg, exciting your qi more than you would by just standing there. Try it in one leg then the other, then both. Then, try it in different stances.
You can easily overdo it, so make it more of an attitude than an effort. Stand still and feel what energetics these rotations produce; then see if you can feel those energetics as they extend up your spine to the top of your head. Take your time; relax your torso as much as possible so you can feel the soft flow of qi that passes through your sinews and the hard line of jin that passes through your bones.
While maintaining long spine, wide frame, extend your awareness into your arms. Taking any posture that you typically practice, gently rotate the upper arm outward as you torque the lower arm in toward your thumb. No movement is necessary, just the very subtle tension that comes with intention. The energetics of this intention end up in your thumb, index finger, and middle finger.
Now, connect your feet to your fingers. Feeling the pressure of your feet on the floor, the spiral inward of your lower legs, the spiral outward of your upper legs, the feeling of firmness (jin) that signals the connective power of your legs, pelvis, and spine, your long spine and wide frame that reaches to the top of your head, the outward spiral of your upper arms, and inward spiral of your lower arms, you are connected.
Breathe deeply and enjoy this feeling. You are experiencing the yoga of taijiquan. When practicing form, you can concentrate on any aspect of this experience or none of it, since the natural spirals and alignments will come in time.
As we have seen, these yogic ideas—drushti, asana, vinyasa, pranayama, and bandha—can become imbedded into your skill set as gentle enhancing nuances. Your gaze can be gentle and clear, your alignment sound, movement fluid, and breathing easy as you cultivate transformative energies throughout your body, preparing pathways for your spirit to rise. And rise, it will.
Greg Brodsky practices the Yang Style of T'ai Chi Ch'uan. He is the student of two renowned Grandmasters: Cheng M'an-Ching (1964-1966) and William C. C. Chen (1966-present), and has been a martial artist since 1960, having also trained in taekwondo, aikido, Western fencing, and boxing. Greg designed a Healing Arts major at UCSC, from where he graduated with honors in 1974. He practiced Chinese medicine for 12 years, and has studied numerous systems of yoga, healing arts, and personal development for over 40 years. In addition, he created the Shaping Up column for Gentleman’s Quarterly magazine and wrote for 38 issues, and has had articles published in T’ai Chi Magazine.
1 (specifically, a dipole, or opposing pair)
1 Cheng Man-ching might have objected to the expression “playing taijiquan.” He reminded his students that the practice was serious business. Yet, his manner, and the manner of the best practitioners I know today—while not frivolous or disrespectful—all embody playfulness.
1 Circa 1990s, alas, this camp has completed its lifecycle.
Peter Ralston defines intrinsic strength as the very nature of the cells being compressed, which broadly translates to jin. Tai chi philosophy distinguishes many kinds of jin, notably: wei jin, or trained strength, nei jin, or internal, subtle strength, fa jin, or released strength, all of which are different from li, which is raw, untrained strength.
1 This refers to nei jin, the more subtle internal strength. Wai jin, which is related to physical power, can be developed through muscle-oriented training.
2 According to tai chi principles, one leg is always more weighted and in higher tonus, therefore “substantial” than the other. Power emanates from the substantial leg as the practitioner visualizes the intended move being applied.
1 Note that one’s breathing changes when speed increases and greater power is issued. I explore this idea in depth in “Compression Breathing,” T’ai Chi Magazine Vol. 28 No. 4, August 2004, pps. 37-44.
1 Devereux, Godfrey, Dynamic Yoga, 1998, page 5, Thorsons Publishing; ISBN 0-72253-655-7
2 Huang Ti, Nei Ching Su Wen, circa 300 BCE, The Yellow Emperor’s Classic
3 Devereux, p. 6
4 ibid, pp. 5-7
5 ibid, pp. 7-8
6 Zhang Yun, Understanding Jin in Taiji Quan, T’ai Chi Magazine, April 2006; Part Two: Volume 30 No. 3, June 2006, pp. 14-20
7 Grandmaster William C. C. Chen teaches this idea to all his students.
8 Fields, Douglas, The Other Brain, 2009, Simon & Schuster ISBN 978-0-7432-91941-5
9 Lowenthal, Wolfe, There Are No Secrets, p.109, North Atlantic Books ISBN1-55643-112-0
10 Devereaux, p.16
11 I address this in depth in What If It’s All Vertical? T’ai Chi Magazine, October 2005
12 Devereaux, p.27
13 Devereaux, pp. 44-45
14 ibid, pp. 56-59
15 Brodsky, Greg, Compression Breathing, Tai Chi Magazine, August 2004; Vol. 28 No. 4; pp. 37-44
16 Cheng and Smith, T’ai Chi, 1966, p. 11, Charles E. Tuttle Co. ISBN0-8048-0560-1
17 Devereaux, pp. 48-51
18 Lu K’uan Yu, Taoist Yoga, 1970, p. 124, Rider and Co. ISBN091027004
19 Wilhelm, Richard, translator, Secret of the Golden Flower, T’ai I Chin Hua Tsung Chih, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1962, p.49 ISBN 0-15-679980-4 (Harvest Pub.)
20 Wu-Yu-hsiang , (1812-1880), Yang Family Manuscripts, Body Principles
21 T’ai Chi Classics
22 Also called the “nine curved pearl.” Yang Family Secret Transmissions, 1983, compiled and translated by Douglas Wile, p. 107 Sweet Ch’i Press
© 2011 Greg Brodsky. All Rights Reserved. Version 6.2