Fundamental Principles of Correct Tai Chi Practice; by Master William Ting
THE TRUE MASTERY of any skill, whether it is virtuosity in the fine arts, proficiency in dance, athletic aptitude, or martial arts’ prowess comes from understanding and applying the underlying philosophy and principles associated with the art. While painters may indulge their passions in sprays of abstract paint and form, true artists must understand the fundamental rules of color and proportion in order to bring their visions to life. Similarly, musicians must feel the harmony and rhythm of a selection, but still study the basics of scales and music theory in order to produce excellence in their music. Poets have words in their heads and stories which beg to be spoken; however their true skills lie in the transference of their tales to verse; following rules combining meter and rhyme to produce poetry. The mastery of Tai Chi is no different. There are fundamental rules or principles common to all styles of Tai Chi that practitioners need to learn and assimilate in order to reach the highest levels in their practice. Most of these rules concern a delicate balance between good body mechanics and keen mental awareness.
In nature, balance is a fundamental principle. All things, whether they are elements, objects, or beings, tend to seek their own state of equilibrium. Before going any further it must be said that there is no such thing as absolute balance. The nature of our environment involves perpetual movement and constant change; consequently, there is always a need for adjustment. Ideally, balance should flow along with change like water that seeks its own level. Failing that, to the degree by which anything strays out of balance, eventually an equal amount will have to be introduced in order for balance to return or elements related to the inequity will begin to falter and fail. The greater the imbalance, the more dramatic the correction will need to be.
Tai Chi’s relationship with its Taoist foundations has it following the same patterns as are found in nature. When we practice Tai Chi and Qigong, the primary objective is to achieve balance and harmony. This balance, however, is more than just physical. It also means keeping mental and energetic states in balance as well. Mind (Yi), Body (Xing) and Energy (Qi) are three basic elements absolutely required for human existence and all of them seek balance to create harmony in practice and in life.
MIND – The Channel of Inspiration
As the means by which a human thinks, knows, acts, and feels, the mind inherently has the ability to exert a controlling role upon the whole being. Unfortunately, many people live their lives absent-mindedly, allowing their minds to wander indiscriminately, in effect, squandering what could be their greatest asset.
Because the mind has so much influence on our state of well-being, it is imperative that we make the best use of it. Essentially, the mind functions in two ways: it thinks and it is aware. Many people equate thinking with awareness; literally without giving it much thought. However, if we use a familiar example, we can perhaps convey a very important difference between the two. If, while driving down a very busy highway, you were to focus all of your attention on one car out of a pack of twenty plus automobiles traveling all around you, what do you think would happen? Remember, your focus is only on that one car and what it is doing in relation to your auto. Odds are particularly favorable that all of that attention, concentrated on that one car, will soon bring you into direct conflict with the twenty other automobiles speeding down the road with you. Thinking is singular and it is focused in its essence. It gives too much importance or weight to the one car and not enough attention to the rest of the traffic traveling the road with you.
However, after many years of practice, in all sorts of conditions, you now drive down the same busy highway keenly aware of every car, truck, and tractor around you without having to focus on only one vehicle. Your capacity for a safe journey has multiplied and while there are still many vehicles surrounding you, your ability to adjust to an unsafe situation in a crowd has clearly increased because your level of awareness has been honed through hours of practice.
What it comes down to simply is this: the more we think, the less aware we are. When we stop focusing our attention on one thing (thinking) and instead begin to treat everything as a whole, AWARENESS is possible. Thinking is a very limited way to use the mind in that most people cannot really think more than one thought at a time. Awareness, on the other hand, is the power of the mind to perceive multiple actions, sensations, and emotions, simultaneously. It alerts us to imperceptible changes all around us so that we can make necessary adjustments to look after and care for ourselves.
We live in a world that is constantly in flux and in motion. Everything seems to be happening altogether, everywhere at once. Awareness is a natural ability that helps us cope with this type of multi-layered environment. We are born into this world with the gift of awareness. Studies have shown that a baby is aware of its environment in the womb. Although they cannot see their surroundings, infants hear things and sense things while floating in their watery environment. Emotional distress on the part of the mother will produce a similar response from the infant. Music played for the pre-born has been demonstrated to soothe and comfort a baby awaiting birth. Awareness is instinctual in all of us, it is how we perceive life, and as such, is a much more efficient use for the mind.
In Tai Chi training, there is a great deal of emphasis placed upon keeping the mind calm. By freeing the mind from thought, it is better able to sense what the body is doing and feeling. In this manner, we begin to connect the mind and body together. When the mind cannot calm down, the body will not relax. Only when the mind is calm will it have the awareness to know if posture and balance are correct; and if not, to make the needed adjustments. This practice has a cyclical and cumulative effect. The more improved our posture becomes, the more the body is able to relax; and the more we relax our body, the more we calm our minds.
BODY – The Vessel for Life
Tai Chi is based upon the ability to be aware of Qi. Through our awareness, we gain the opportunity to optimize and make effective use of Qi. The basic principles were designed and tested by many generations of Masters to use the body and mind together to set up the proper conditions that would encourage the uninterrupted flow of Qi. Initially in a student’s training, many hours are spent learning the principles of correct posture. This must happen in order to prepare the body for the circulation of Qi to follow. Even as one progresses in their training, the essentials of structure, balance, and coordination are continually being refined and perfected.
The basic principles are what they are; they do not change from style to style or movement to movement. However, there are varying degrees by which students actually internalize these principles in their practice, or for that matter, into their daily lives. My challenge as a teacher is to continually search for ways to help my students understand these fundamentals, both intellectually and physically. It is this combination of mind and body together that is the foundation of Tai Chi. Ultimately, the only way to achieve the goal of wholeness and unity is through the coordination of mind and body, as one.
As we exist in a physical environment, the body is the container that holds our physical being. We use our body’s posture to support and transport ourselves about. However, we also convey our inner presence to the outside world by the manner we use to present ourselves in public. Good posture uses the body in the way it was designed for optimum development, ease of function, and efficiency of movement. This, in turn, helps to increase energy and vitality and contributes to our outward sense of confidence and poise.
Since my background and training in Tai Chi had originally been focused on its use as a martial art, posture is extremely important to me in my classes and seminars. In order to use “Qi” effectively to knock an opponent away from you, you must know how to stand and how to root in order to strike quickly and successfully. Those who have attended any of my workshops will find that the list of “24 Musts” pertaining to posture is always included in the handouts. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of correct posture to high levels of Tai Chi.
The principles of posture are the means by which we establish a strong foundation; what is often referred to as our “root”. These principles literally set up the physical structure for our body. Tai Chi is based on Taoist’ philosophies which rely on natural laws and adhere to universal truths. As this pertains to posture, it means employing good body mechanics so that we harmonize our movements with the way the body is designed.
We live in an environment held together by gravitational forces. Our bones and muscles are exceptionally suited to working together to endure this perpetual pull of gravity. Although our skeleton is ‘jointed’ for flexibility, our ability to remain interconnected provides us the proper mechanism to adjust for balance.
Good balance enhances strength and stability. When the body structure is relaxed, balanced, and stable, the connecting muscles are able to function with less effort and we experience ease of movement. However, if the structure is unbalanced and weak, the muscles must work harder to offset the lack of support, causing tension, pain, and fatigue. When our bodies cooperate with gravity and not against it, we are rewarded with balance, flexibility, and endurance. In short, correct posture is synonymous with good balance.
But what is the correct posture and how do we cultivate and assimilate it into our Tai Chi practice? As I mentioned before, in all of my teachings, I present students with the list of “24 Musts”. I use this list as a reference for establishing correct posture.
To learn more about the “24 Musts” and other essentials about Tai Chi, please purchase Master William Ting’s book:
This article is an xxcerpt from Master Ting's book Essential Concepts of Tai Chi ; printed with permission
Master William Ting’s website: silvertigertaichi.com