Some thoughts on the practice and build-up of training in classical Tai Chi

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This article is written to serve as a helpful overview of the practice-methods and ways of layering the training that are inherent in the more complete lineages of Taijiquan. This text will provide you with an overview of principles and ways of practice that should be part of the core material of every style of Taiji, not just one specific version or sub-style. It seems to me (no master, but at least a 20-year practitioner of Taiji, qigong, Internal Martial Arts and meditation, journalist on the subject and full-time professional teacher for the last decade) that it is exactly this knowledge of how to layer the training that has become one of the most crucial missing links in the West. It has come to the point where many teachers are unaware of its existence, let alone know the details and structural framework that goes into it. I personally feel, as do many serious practitioners and teachers along with me, that the lack of this knowledge of layers is watering down the incredible art that Taiji can be. The principles and layering in the text are largely the same through all the Internal Arts, even though separate articles for each would be necessary to specify the different intentions and techniques of each style. The article is not a complete overview of all the material, as that would be an encyclopedia, but it covers some of the aspects that are the most useful or the least known in the West. At the end of the text we will also provide you with a reading-list for those interested in further reading on the same theme but from other writers.

So, what do you say? Want to get started?

The importance of layering the training

This writer has been a student both of teachers who didn´t know anything at all and (currently) of teachers who are formal lineage holders, but have also had teachers between those poles. What I once cursed my incompetent teachers for I now consider a blessing – at least I know first-hand what it is like to have a really really bad teacher. The more complete the tradition of Taiji you encounter, the more precise layering the training will have. There will be huge amounts of information not only on what you do inside your body with your mind while doing the external movements, but also on side-exercises and parts of the movements that you practice separately, outside any forms. In China, this type of training was a given. If you didn´t want to do it, fair enough, have a good life and I might see you in the next one. Here in the West, we have an unsurpassed richness in the information about Taiji and qigong. This offers us an overview that most chinese probably have never seen the like of over the last 2700+ years, but it has also created a workshop-culture with very few demands put on the student. In this, the general thought is that you can practice a little of many things and still get good, which of course is untrue for any subject - especially one as rich and complex as genuine Taiji. Each layer in the training is built to stabilize and act as the foundation for the next one. If you skip layers, your training will seem like it´s going faster, it will seem like you´re getting to ”the juicy stuff”, while in fact the only thing that happens is that you are building in a ceiling that will prevent your training from evolving a few years down the road. Teachers who are unaware of this layering will often get quite angry when informed of it, and vehemenently deny its existence even when the information is given to them in printed form or shown, in detail, in real-life. It is up to you as a student to decide what you want to spend your lifetime on.

External form

External form is simply the external movement. Where your hand goes, where your feet goes, how your body moves in space – the external packaging. The pizza-box. This box varies from style to style, from teacher to teacher. Some say it can only look like this, with a little oven pictured on top and in this brownish card-board, while others say that hey, no, it cannot, it must also have a caricature of an italian chef next to it...while someone will whisper, no, oh no, my teacher has the only true pizza-box lineage, and he says that the shirt of the chef...should, should be chequered! Great. The key question the entire time has of course been whether there´s any pizza inside. And how tasty it is. If a full belly is what you´re looking for. Some don´t; they are in fact looking for a nice box to hang on the wall and to parade around town during Lent to show that they, actually, are not eating pizza, and that´s the way it should be. Or they might smirk and say ”But I want Tofu”. Good for you. It´s healthier. Doesn´t taste anything, better for your arteries. But it still begs the question whether there´s any pizza inside the pajamas. Sorry, box.

Some external forms in Taiji and qigong are more useful than others, some are more useful for specific purposes. If you are practicing with a weak body and bad health, you don´t want to start off with Chen Taiji, while if you are looking for functional martial Taiji you might not want to start with the Beijing Ershisibu, the simplified Yang 24-form. The external movements don´t matter much as long as your teacher knows what you should be doing inside the movements. Can the teacher actually serve you pizza, hot and crusty with a delicious smell of warm cheese, directly from the oven, or only describe it from what they heard some bloke talk about one night at the pub? One major thing that should be in all external forms are the three basic connections that will prevent your knees from injury. The other is that you should continously, over time, always allow your form to become softer even though it´s structured, and it should become more alive for every year you practice, both in mind, body, and energy. There are specific techniques for this. Recipes, if you will.

Internal form

Internal form is the filling of the external movements. It consists of a huge library of knowledge, where you learn to use your mind to link to and manipulate your body and energy. The closer to a lineage your teacher is, the more depth and precision the internal form will have. This is also crucial to make Taiji work as a genuine fighting Internal Art. This writer has seen many ”teachers” who are in effect taking the physical movements of Taiji and only teaching applications from them as you would in an External Art, something which means that the horrific efficiency of Taiji as a martial system dies (”Evenin´, guv, ´ere´s your box, then. That´ll be 5.90, if you please. Nice shirt on that eyetalian gennelman, innit?”). Internal form is sometimes referred to as ”Internal connections” as well, or alignments. The following list would be considered basic material within high-quality Taiji. Not advanced: basic material. These are parts of the internal form that skilled practitioners and teachers take for granted.

Liu He – ”the Six Harmonies”. Especially the first three of them, which are concerned with how you connect the body up into a smooth, integrated unit using precise body-mind connections. These three are then deepened even more, down to millimeter-connections of the body. The liuhe are considered absolute basics in all the Internal Arts.

Yaokua – Waist and Kua. Traditionally, one would begin with working the kua, the deepest tissue and energy of the hip crease, in several different ways. These are originally stabilized in the Six Harmonies, where the practitioner learns to get life into both the kua, buttocks, upper legs and the back of the knees, but it is here deepened to include softening the kua, integrating horizontal movement, and then, once that is soft and stable, movement in an up/down plane, while further on linking both together and linking them to the rest of the body. The waist needs the stable foundation of the kua to stand on to work properly, or you might twist your spine and soft tissues of the body misaligned. Once the kua-work is done, one begins on softening the waist, softening the internal organs, working the lower ribs, and linking this to the movement of the feet and hands.

Structure – structure is a separate section of internal form, often known under the name alignments. Taiji-practitioners who have no structure in their training look like overcooked spaghetti – or a pizza-box that has been left out in the rain over night together with three empty cans of lager and a hungry mouse. There are many different levels of structure-training, but in actual fact structure is the third step of movement. The first two are 1) just being able to do the external move at all, then 2) being able to do it with some amount of softness. Before those two have been given plenty of time, structure shouldn´t be in the picture, as the student will retain pre-programmed tension in their training. Structure is what keeps energy-flows and connective tissue within the body open, it permits free and relaxed blood-flow, keeps the spine open and alive, and lets blood flow to and from the head. Without structure, the amount of power Taiji can produced as a martial arts is also limited. Many parts of structure-training are misunderstood in the West, such as how you use the chest in Taiji (han xiong ba bei), where most teachers teach to do too much and allow the chest to collapse, when in fact it should be the weight and energy and tension of the chest that drops while the chest itself remains relaxed, comfortable, and open. If this is not done, energy and movement to and from the hands will be severely impaired, as will it to the head, while locking the ribcage, Upper Jiao of chinese medicine, and closing the lungs around the heart. A similar problem is overtucking the coccyx. Most westerners need several years of just relaxing their buttocks, lower back and kua before they can tuck at all, softly, and many actually create more tension in this region of their body instead of loosening it up. A common mistake is to not understand that chinese students have grown up with squatting, while most westerners grow up with sitting on chairs. Another thing often lost in western Taiji is the kang, keeping the perineum and inside of the legs open so as to stabilize the legs, knees, lower back, and the power coming through them from the ground. Without keeping this open the connection between upper and lower body will be decreased. And, to repeat, a set of important basic connections are the three connections for the knees that every beginner should be taught day 1 to avoid injury to their knees, and to build up knees that already might be damaged.

Song - ”softness”. Song is a diffult phrase to translate into a western language. We haven´t really got a similar concept. Here, it often becomes so relaxed that it´s limp, whereas song itself connotates a freedom of tension, but also a softness and a downwards intent all in one. Soft heaviness might be one explanation, while in the practice this is only one step of the training, and later song changes to be very alive and very light while at the same time being heavy. Part of this are also the techniques for how you connect your mind to your body to relax in specific locations and let them soften, not just a general idea of it.

Chang - ”lengthening”. Also a basic technique. This builds upon the previous foundation of pure movement, soft movement, song, and structure. Chang is how you use first the movements and then the mind to lengthen tissue in the body in very specific patterns. These are first done in general larger patterns, then changed into being specific, covering, among other things, the yin and yang-sides of the body to affect the yin- and yang-flows of energy. Strictly speaking, this technique is not necessary for pure health-training, while being vital for functional Internal Arts. Lengthening is what opens the physical tissue to allow power to travel through your body into your opponent. The different arts do this different ways. While Xingyi takes it to the most detailed extreme, Taiji does it the softest and most deceptively, and Bagua takes it into complete new realms with the Dragon Body-techniques and the coiling.

Xia Dantian – Lower Dantian-training. Not a beginner´s technique by any means, but still a core technique in the more complete lineages. This concerns how the practitioner first stabilises the lower dantian of the body (which takes a good while), then learns how to link it to the Five Bows using both alignments, lengthening, and song. Later on, in advanced training, this expands to how you rotate the lower dantian in various ways to link it with movements, rooting, and power. Once again, this is not really a crucial technique if you are doing Taiji purely for your own health, but more a necessary facet of the martial side of the training. As with all energy-practices, lower dantian-training must be built up in layers, or the practitioner risks injury to his or her system. Most westerners need at least five years or so of general qigong or Taiji before they even have enough energy to start trying to feel their lower dantian, let alone begin to stabilise it.

What´s your purpose?

So, now you have gotten a short tour of the basic internal form. Note that what I went through here is not beginner´s internal form. It is however internal form-work that most skilled teachers would consider basic material of the style. Now that we have a common vocabulary, we can begin looking at one of the really important issues: what purpose do you have with your training? Your answer to this question will shape your entire practice. And it should. Depending on your purpose, your training should be tailored in completely different ways. Many people are unaware of this, which means that they might go for training or a style that really doesn´t help their true purpose a whole lot, and which might sidetrack them or make them stop training. If your purpose is social, that is to get out of the house once a night in the week and meet some nice people to talk to, and your interest in the training isn´t that high, that´s completely okay. But it´s good for you to take a look at what purpose you really have with your training. You might be missing out on something that really would help your life a whole lot more. So, let´s have a look at a few examples.

For health – This is the largest group of practitioners of Taiji worldwide today. Here, your main focus is on restoring and improving your physical health, slowly letting Taiji build it up and stabilize it. Continous training of this level will bring back a vibrancy of life in you and let you keep that up into ages where most bodies simply have given up. Correctly taught and practiced, Taiji is an incredible tool for health.

Meditation – if your main interest is meditation-practices, Taiji can provide you with an great stabilizer for your mind and your health. In traditional Daoist lineages, there are specific qigongs done in specific ways for this, as well as the Internal Art of Bagua, but if this material is unknown to you, Taiji can provide an excellent tool for letting you build up your body and allowing you to stay healthy despite lengthier sitting meditation. Also, meditation without energetic training will deplete physical energy, both as jing and qi, as it converts both into shen, ”spirit”. A regular Taiji practice will mitigate possible side-effects on your body and mind, and will in actual fact make your meditation-practice go faster, safer.

Martial Arts – here your interest is on Taiji the martial art. Health is a beneficial side-effect in this training, and the main focus is to use it and train it for martial purposes. This is quite difficult. Taiji is an incredibly effective and vicious martial art given the full scope of the training, but for many, the demands on learning to yield and use yin-energy as part of martial training is too demanding. Also, this version of martial art takes much, much longer time than any External Art. The prize is of course the greater, and will last your entire life, but it is very important to be conscious of how to layer the training safely and to know the techniques for dealing with the much subtler and inherently treacherous waters of your attitude to power as linked to energy that is Yin without becoming a nasty passive-agressive. All slow forms in Taiji are fast forms, something many styles have lost. Yang Banhou, son of Yang Luchan and uncle to Yang Chengfu, was known to be able to do the long Yang-form fully connected and with power in two minutes. Moving slow will make you faster; only moving slowly will never make you fast.

Actual self-defence – vastly different from martial arts-training in most schools, as experienced real-life fighters well know. Here, the training will resemble more what Taiji used to be like in the old days, and use a full tool-box with techniques both for mind, qi and body as they are used under real threat in real situations against someone who wishes you severe harm. Part of these are the techniques for how you use intention of varying levels to project the intent to harm or kill against your partner, without which few martial arts ever work in real life. Remember, before the year 1900, Taiji was primarily used by professional bodyguards and soldiers for defending themselves or others, hence a tool that had to be useful for life-and-death combat on a daily basis. It is very gratifying that we live in a society where we actually can use Taiji only in the delightful form of healing ourselves, but even if you have no interest in using Taiji for real-life situations, without understanding a little of the old usages of Taiji and the fact that it can work in situations on life and death, one can easily water down the style to extinction.

Teaching – a separate field. Teaching Taiji or qigong is an occupation that demands huge amounts of knowledge and huge skill to be able to deal with the responsibility of the health of the students. As everybody knows, one cannot go from knowing the limited amount of knowledge that you need for just your own health to then being a teacher. It needs specific training and skill to understand how to teach, and how to teach safely. Also, here you take upon yourself to manifest Taiji as a style, and take upon your shoulders not to be another westerner who will water the art down into transparent water-colours. Should be at least ten years training, preferably more, with more than an hour of practice every day.

Therapeutic Taiji – how to use Taiji specifically for treating illnessess. Demands even more knowledge than just teaching it, including how to diagnose a student using diagnostics from chinese medicine, and knowing about how to tailor-make the postures and their content depending on the students current health. Anybody genuinely involved in this has a constant hunger for more information and higher skill, so as to be able to do their job safer and more effectively for the student and patient. Should be more training and much more knowledge than the previous section. Here, another living human being´s health is literally in your hands.

It is often quite useful for you to, every now and then, sit down and think over what your purpose is with your training. You might not come up with one, nor do you need to; over time they usually crystallize and become clearer. Your purpose will also change over your lifetime, and your training should be changed along with it.

Standing practice

Standing practice, zhanzhuang, is a key practice in all Internal Arts. It is used in various ways, with varying intention and different postures, but all of them, even Bagua, have it. The oldest Taiji, Chen Taiji, uses standing practice as a main power-generator. In Old Yang Taiji, the original way of training was that students were never taught forms. You were taught the postures one at a time, then did standing meditation in that one for up to an hour or more, and were simultaneously taught it as a single movement practice. Once one was digested, you did the next, and slowly these were linked to a form, mainly as a mnemonic. The real work was done in the single postures or in short sequences of them linked together. If you include standing in your postures occasionally, even if only for three to five minutes, it will dramatically change your form, energy, mind, power, root, and structure. Always allow your standing practice to be within your limits. Do it for as long as is comfortable, then quit for today, or just move on and do the rest of your form with soft flow and connection. Forced standing, or standing that feels wooden, is a mistake in training and will program in tension in you that takes years to clean out.

The many facets of rooting

Rooting is of course a basic technique in all the Internal Arts. Each art does it differently from the other, but they all include it. Taiji is the one that has the heaviest, deepest root of them all. This is partially the key to why fighting a good Taiji-practitioner should feel like punching into the sea – it´s almost there, you just missed it, and it has you surrounded. Oh bother. As a technique, rooting has many, many different layers of practice, each interlinking with the next. These are practiced first in standing practices, then in weight-shifts without arms, then single movement practices, then while moving, and finally with a partner, and then moving with an opponent. Doing soft standing practice in the postures from the form is one guaranteed way of making your root increase in vast amounts. A core technique to create rooting is the basic Internal Arts-technique of chen, releasing weight and energy downwards. This is part of song as well. It is done with increasing precision, just letting weight, locked tension, and later on, energy, be released downwards in the body, at least down to the soles of the feet, and once on the right training-level, into the ground to the end of your wei qi. The intention is always to release, to allow it to drop, and one must always avoid forcing it or pushing it downards, as doing so will program in tension rather than re-program and release it. Releasing weight and energy downwards follows the same sequence as that mentioned in the previous paragraph, and is done in all those practices too. It also has very effective usages for fighting. It is a basic technique that permeates all the Internal Arts. In Taiji for genuine combat, the focus is first on creating root, then creating extremly fast feet, then melding those together. Very, very few practitioners can maintain root while moving at combat speed.

Twisting and spirals – chanzijing, chouzijing, luoshenjing

Twisting tissue and then spiralling it is also a core technique in all Taiji. The twisting known as chanzijing, silk-reeling, in Chen Taiji, should be done in equal amounts in the other styles only not visible on the surface as it is in Chen Taiji. In Yang Taiji it is usually referred to as chouzijing, ”pulling silk-energy”, and works differently than in Chen, while Xingyi and Bagua often refer to this under the name of luoxuanjing, drilling energy, doing it, once again, with a different spirit than it should be done in Taiji. It is crucial to first build up the other layers of the movement only, then softness in it, then structure, before going near the actual twisting and spiraling. If this not done, the student´s body will often take unessecary damage. It will also impede training when the layers are not gently built up to blend into each other. This is especially important when working with deep twistings or spiralings that reach internal organs and the connection-points of the fascia to the organs and to the spine. If you´re good at Taiji, diagnosing what people are doing and at what levels of depth in their body that they are, is a basic skill any teacher has. Your teacher should be able to do this, so as to see and gently correct any mistakes that might impede your practice ten years from now.

The deceptively soft Peng of Taiji – the four energies as a dimmer, not a switch

All the Internal Arts as fighting arts are built upon many different layers, but one of the important ones is refined qi shaped by intention in the form of different powers for fighting - jing. The basic four are peng, lu, ji and an (wardoff, roll-back, press, and push downward). They are the fighting software you put into the Internal Arts. First steps for them are all the things mentioned above and many more, with lots and lots of more physical work first, but once you get to the level where you´ve built up enough energy and can feel it clearly, and can use them as energy joined with your body and mind in one unit, you first start hardwiring the four into standing practices, then into single movement practice, then into forms, and then you put them into various exercises with a partner. All the four energies are used separately as well as combined, sometimes with at least two of them simultaneously in one arm or in different parts of the body. Important to note, concerning the old classical saying that peng is the basic energy of Taiji, is that all the four are dimmers, not switches. All four energies, as well as the number of other ones they give birth to, should be trained from 0-100, not just 80-100. Peng in Taiji should have a markedly softer spirit than in Xingyi; lu in Taiji should be clearly different from the lu used in Bagua, and so forth. Once the practitioner is on the level for it, same thing goes for the Five Element-energies that Xingyi uses, and the energies of the trigrams used in Bagua. Another part of this is of course knowing how to use the four energies in actual combat, which takes a lot of hard work and includes how to use them fast, not just as slow moving or static ideas. Many styles and teachers do not know the four energies in their full scope, some even teaching them only as the physical movements in the Grasp Sparrow´s Tail-sequence. This author has seen one clear example of where an otherwise fairly skilled New Yang Taiji-teacher knew the first three, but due to misinformation in the style still thought that an, the energetic powers of push downward, was only a straight, outgoing push.

The build-up of partner-exercises

Taiji has a wide range of partner-exercises. Some are useful in a health-setting, some are useful for meditation, and the original range of them was of course various components that built up the ability to use Taiji for actual combat. The one most commonly taught in Taiji today is the simpler version called tuishou, or Push Hands. Push Hands have many different layers and techniques in them. The basic techniques that are part of push hands are all of the above, and then added to those, the major facet of tingjing, listening energy. Without tingjing, the Internal Arts aren´t really the Internal Arts. Taiji in particular specializes in it, and there are many different levels of tingjing to work with and slowly let flower for the practitioner. First you learn to just keep in contact and do that continously and softly, then you learn how to listen to energy, how to use your mind to feel inside the opponent, and how to feel their mind, and then how to start leading and controlling their actions. Listening-energy, yielding, and softness are the yin-part of partner-work. The yang-part consists of exercises aiming for yang: structure, peng, rooting, and power. Slowly these are merged, giving the practitioner the ability to simultaneously manifest both yin and yang. Push hands-practice is not recommended to begin with without several years of training. All the layers of the solo-training should be built to a degree first, as the student otherwise will neither understand nor appreciate push hands, and often not understand the complexity of combining the solo-work with the partner-practice. In more complete Taiji-lineages, further training is taught double-handed in various ways, tingjing in the legs, moving partner-work, applications, locking and throwing based on listening-skills and leading, and more complex partner-work such as huashou, flower hands, where both arms are used and all techniques are practiced freely, akin to what Xingyi and Bagua refers to as roushou. All the striking-techniques of Taiji are then slowly layered into partner-exercises, both the purely physical movements, the Five Bows, the point-power, and structural fajing as well as slowly real fajing. Also, it is here that the four energies are starting to be taught manifested fast, for fighting. You are taught how to use the entire body for fighting, and how to manipulate the opponent´s mind, energy-system, fascia, joints, spine and soft tissue. Also, different strikes that will hit wherever you want to in the opponent, and how to use intention to form the energy in your strike. Elbows, wrists, knees, hips, shoulders, head, stomping, kicking, leg-locks, all are trained and their hidden usages from the form-movements are deepened.

Basic training and the lack of teachers offering it (and the few heroes that do)

Basic training, jibengong, is one of the most beautiful phrases in the Internal Arts and qigong-vocabulary. It is what hand-hewn stones are to a beautiful castle, what pillars are to a gothic cathedral, what single brush-strokes are to masterpiece, what chords are to a symphony. To quote UK Internal Arts-teacher, Old Yang Taiji-disciple, and author, Alex Kozma: ”The form is the last thing you do.” Basic training is what makes the movements and forms come alive. It is a huge toolbox of different exercises that you practice singly, and then slowly integrate in layers in every millimeter-move of your form. Basic training will cover an enormous range of internal form that you put into the external movements. Part of the absolute core material of it are usually standing practices, weight-shifts without arm-movements, stepping, and single movement-practices. There are many more building blocks than these, but these are common to find in any good quality Taiji. All genuine teachers emphasize basic training. It is what will decide the level of skill you get in your Taiji. Basic training will transform everything in your practice, and is what will allow the art to reach its highest potential for you all through your life. If a teacher really respects you as a student, they will teach you slowly. In the West, basic training is rare. Few know it, and even some who do still refuse to teach it. Sometimes this is because they want to save their students from the ”boredom” of basic training, but more often it is because they are afraid that if the training isn´t exciting, students will leave and take their money with them. Thing is, the really good practitioners were trained hard, and had lots of basic training. If they don´t hand that treasure-chest on, no student will ever reach even their level of skill, let alone surpass it. It is worth remembering that Yang Luchan, who practiced Chen Taiji, and whose children created the Yang-style, was known as Yang the Invincible for his incredible skills. He also had 18 years of incredibly hard training with the Chen teachers before he acquired that name and became a legend in Beijing.

Core practices

One of the classical ways of training is single movement-practice. Here, the student takes one movement only and works it in depth. This can be done in a great number of different ways. One of the typical ones to put huge amounts of time into was the Grasp Sparrow´s Tail-sequence, where only those four movements were done for hours. Each of them was done as standing practice for at least an hour, they were worked individually, and then they were combined. Sometimes they were linked to danbian, single whip, sometimes not. This is one way to invest deeper time and lend more richness to your form-work. If you want to learn Taiji as a fighting art, it´s the only way to make it work. The energetics and techniques that make the Internal Arts internal fighting arts cannot be learned in any simpler, faster way than this. Each time you work single movement-practice, various different components are chosen to be deepened. They might be simple ones, such as focussing on softness and relaxation while doing the movement itself. You might be working on how to use that specific move to release a part of your body, such as your shoulder-blades, your shoulder´s-nests, or your joints; you might be more advanced and use the movement to release one of your internal organs, or on specific energetics inside your system. You might be working your wei qi in your practice, which is quoted in the Chen Taiji Classics, or you might be focussing simply on learning the movement itself, feeling how it works, trying to relax into it, make it fully aware and alive, and let your mind song, become soft, and your whole system become more yin. You might be doing the eye-work of Taiji, or the basic techniques of linking your mind to the empty foot or hand to increase connection and power. There is an incredible difference in quality to those moves or sequences of the form you have done as single movement-practice and those you haven´t. Eventually, you would of course want to work through each and every posture in this way, at length, even if there always will be some that are key postures that will open the locks in your entire training and in the principles that make Taiji be Taiji. There are no set ways to do a form, there are no ”this is the only way to do it, otherwise you do it wrong”. Each and every movement can be slightly altered depending on what you are working with, how you´re opening up your body today, or, in the martial training, what specific applications you have in mind to get softness, power, awareness, or speed into. As you use single movement-practice to let your body come alive in every millimeter, and your mind to become alive and softly aware in every millimeter of the movement, you will slowly understand the tremendous gift that single movement-practice can be to your training. If you are an advanced practitioner, you will already be working on circularity of body, mind, and energy, and on the key issue of making the transitions of the form be as alive, soft, connected and full of intent as the easy end-moves of each posture. One of the simplest ways of judging a practitioner´s skill is always to look at the transitions: the less skill, the more they skip the difficult parts between each movement, or inside the movement itself, where arms or legs shift, or where the movement goes inside the body before emerging to be visible again.

”I don´t want to practice this way”

That´s completely okay. It´s your life. This article offers those who actually want to learn more an in-depth overview over the whole spectrum of training that makes Taiji the unique style that it is. But, I might add, if you slowly learn and integrate the practices I mention here, you will transform the style you are practicing into something much richer, much deeper, and much more complete both for health, meditation, and fighting. You will find experiences and a happiness in it you never saw before. This, however, is not worth mentioning to people who actually teach Taiji, as all genuine Taiji-teachers have an incredibly hunger for learning the style they teach in as much depth and skill as possible, since they are taking on the role of transmitting this to the future, and want their legacy to be as solid as it can be even in their small part of the world.

The hidden key ingredient of power-training, or ”Neigong”

This section really has to do with Taiji as a style, including the martial practices, and it is not necessary if your focus is purely on your health. Doing the form and the form alone will never give you ability to fully use Taiji as a martial system. Nor did they ever do the form only for this. All more complete lineages have some kind of power-generator. In many of them it is simply standing-practices in large amounts; in others the core group of students around the lineage holder might be taught ”secret” energy-practices that in effect give them the fuel for real fighting power. It is known that Zheng Manqing did daoist neigong which he only taught to three students (see Ronnie Robinson´s interview with C. C. Chen in a previous issue). Other styles have used sitting meditation-practices, yet others have borrowed daoist energy-work to focus it more purely on fighting. Some of these are sometimes referred to as neigong, or internal power practices. This is a bit of misnomer, but it is a common usage. Often they consist of pure internal form work focused on intention and energy, instead of physical body practices only. In many styles this involves breath-work or mind-work, even though it seems that most older lineages are very cautious to teach breath linked to the movements until the practitioner is quite advanced, as there are side-effects on your mind and body if the ground isn´t well prepared. You always want to layer your training slowly, as this is the one key that decides whether you take unnecessary risks that might decrease your health instead of increase it. There are several such stories about practitioners or masters who have wanted more power, only to find that in doing so they paid in coin they never even knew they had to lose. Always go back to your purpose. Unless you are a professional close protection operative (bodyguard), a soldier, or a police officer, there are rarely reasons for you to have lots of power now except to feed the neurotic impulses within yourself. And you would be much better off, as would everybody whose lives you touch, in working with the blockages in your mind to be free of them instead of hungrily seeking more power.

Balancing the layers of your Taiji-training

A note here on balancing the training. All techniques mentioned here are part of a complete style of Taiji. However, if you become unbalanced in your practice or in your mind, you might over-specialize in one, which will cause harm to the rest of your training (and sometimes your energy-system and health). For example, being able to do Taiji but only doing it with extreme structural focus is a classical fault; it must be balanced with being able to do the movements and the movements only, and then increasing softness and circularity while doing the movements only. But equally, doing the physical movement with no structure-work will give you a pizza-box made out of woven lint. Wait for the next rain. Go on. As the current name of the style implies, the build-up of the practice itself should also be balanced. Some periods you might put months into doing stepping alone, with just a little form-work, focussing mainly on the softness of your feet, your rooting, your spine, your ankles - while others might see you focussing on softening your hands for increased roll-back (lu) skills or energy-projection (ji) skills into an opponent, or on your ability to move around your center, adding kua and waist, whilst remaining rooted in the middle of the change that is life. If you´re doing the real martial side, the same interweaving of balanced layers applies. Here you might see some periods doing the movements exceedingly slow, or adding this component or that, that energetic technique or that mind-work, while others might be turned towards doing the movements faster, either with structure, softness, or power, and then going back to fixing the problems you found through applications of other work such as lengthening, song, or connections that you missed before.

Final words and it´s all your fault (and mine)

Well, it is. It is all your fault. And mine. If you teach Taiji, then it is. I do, and it´s mine, if I don´t respect the style enough to always keep learning and deepening my skills. It is up to you, me, and everybody else who practices, to decide what legacy we want to leave in the world. A grubby gift of a style watered down beyond restore, or a precious gem of an art with as much depth, colour, tone, and skill as we can. We can only do the best we can, but it is up to us which direction we take the style. If you teach, and decide to avoid learning or deepening your skills more and more, you have made an unconscious choice that you´re okay with Taiji and qigong going to the dogs on your watch. Would you really want to be one of the ones responsible for that? No-one can make the choice for you. Which choice did you make?

© Daniel Skyle 2008

Daniel Skyle has studied Taiji, qigong, meditation, and the Internal Arts for 18 years, the last ten full time as a professional teacher. He has studied Yang-style, Chen-style, Baguazhang and Xingyiquan, with training focusing mainly on the ”filling” of the training, not the external movements only. His main teachers are the qigong-master and Tai Chi lineage holder Bruce Frantzis, as well as senior students of his, and the Chen Taiji and Hebei Xingyi-master Ma Baoguo for whom he is an inner door student. Daniel has written about the Internal Arts, qigong and associated subjects since 1993, always trying to find sources that are as close to the old ways of training and skill as possible, with special focus on the way the systems are layered and how they transfer information from one generation to the next. He has also worked in situations where violence was regularly present. He is currently investing time in his bilingual website that holds 600 pages of information on the swedish one, which are getting translated into english at

Further reading

Through the Mysterious Gate, Alex Kozma, private publishing (this and other books can be ordered at

Esoteric Warriors, Alex Kozma, Crompton

Opening the Energy Gates of the Body, Bruce Frantzis, new edition, Blue Snake Books

The power of the Internal Martial Arts and Chi, Bruce Frantzis, new edition, Blue Snake Books

Classical Northern Wu Style Taijiquan – the fighting art of the Manchurian Palace Guard, Frank Allen and Tina Zhang, Blue Snake Books

Ziranmen – Alex Kozma, private publishing

Xingyiquan Basic Skills, article by Xingyi and Taiji-grandmaster Shang Ji of Xian, March 1987, Wushu Jianshen Magazine

Tai Chi Touchstones, Douglas Wile, Sweet Chi Press