To understand tai chi, you must understand peng-jin. Without peng-jin, tai chi postures and movements lack power and energy, and have no internal connections. It is the internal power and connections that make tai chi an “internal” art. The tai chi classics tell us to be a “needle wrapped in cotton,” meaning that while staying soft and relaxed on the outside, there is resilience and power on the inside. Many tai chi players practice being like cotton, meaning soft and above all, relaxed, but what they often misunderstand is that you must have both, the needle and the cotton; the internal force created by peng-jin and the softness of relaxation. And, although relaxing is paramount, it is not enough. Relaxing without having peng-jin is being limp and devoid of energy and power. In this article we will discuss what makes peng-jin so important, and how it is created through relaxing and “opening” the joints in our bodies. We will discuss how to build internal connections that allow for the flow of energy.
Tai chi is a unique art because it does not use overt muscular force, and instead relies on internal connections, skeletal alignment, and body unity to generate power and energy. To generate this internal power the body must align in a way that connects all its pieces and allows energy to move through them. This alignment is dependent on opening the body’s joints so that energy or force can move through them. Imagine each part of the body as a hose. Each arm is a hose; the legs are hoses, the chest, the back, the hips, the head, etc. are all individual hoses. Our aim is to connect each individual part to its adjacent part to create a unified and complete body. What connects the parts are the joints. Think of each joint as a gate that when it is open it allows energy and fluids to flow; when it is closing, the flow is hampered and even stops. To open these gates, each part of the joint must move away from the other. For example, when we sink our hips and lift our heads we are gently pulling apart and separating each vertebrae. When the hand goes forward and the elbow sinks, it opens the wrist joint. When the elbow sinks, it moves away from the shoulder. When the shoulder moves forward, the chest moves slightly back. The flow of energy in our body is maximize when all the joints are open and all the parts are connected.
This connection and opening of the joints is expressed in tai chi in the shape of bows. In a good tai chi posture our arms and legs and back have the shape of “bows”. The power of the bow is in its ability to flex and expand. But a bow that is not strung is just a lifeless stick. When it is strung, it comes to life. As it flexes to build up power, it curves so that each part of the bow expands by moving away from the other parts. To capture this potential energy and internal force, we must shape our bodies to be like strung bows because when the joints are open the energy increase; when the joints are compressed or closed, the flow is constricted. When done correctly, the separate bows in the body unite into one large bow. But this is still only part of the story. A bow is only two-dimensional, and our bodies are three-dimensional. Therefore, when we expand our internal bows it is not just horizontal or vertical; we expand in every direction so that we become part of a sphere. We become like an inflated balloon. The front of our bodies are slightly rounded inwards, and our backs are rounded out (see picture below).
When we successfully open the joints in our body, we are creating peng-jin. Peng-jin can be interpreted in many ways; bouncing energy, or buoyancy, but ultimately, what it really points to is internal expansion. When an opponent exerts force against someone who has peng-jin, the point of contact is soft, the muscles stay relaxed, yet the resistance feels very solid. Like an inflated ball, the incoming force is absorbed and yet simultaneously resisted. The ball is not actively resisting or doing anything. The internal forces in the ball simply react. When you have peng-jin, incoming force passes through you without you collapsing or doing anything. When you have peng-jin you become like an inflated ball; feeling fullness and expanded. This feeling is to be found in every tai chi posture. If a posture does not have peng-jin, it is not tai chi. Peng-jin is what makes the tai chi postures and movements look and feel as they do; relaxed, soft, yet powerful, full, and elastic. When you have peng-jin, your body feels full, your movements are round, and you feel open. The fullness and expansion are caused by opening all the joints.
The picture on the left is a good example of how to do Peng-jin as in the Ward Off posture.
· Roundness of the arms and back
· Open shoulder joint
· Elbow sinking down
· Shoulder blades apart and down
· Chest slightly sunk, back is round
· Hip joints (quas) nicely bent
· Lower back (ming-men) relaxed and straight (not bent towards the belly button)
· You can almost see a line from her left forearm to her right foot
If you look at all these things together as a whole, you can readily see that the person’s body is expanded and open from the head to the feet, and from the arms to the legs. You can easily imagine a line from the extended forearm, through the lower back, and to the right foot.
In a follow-up article we describe how to feel peng-jin while doing Brush Knee, and even when practicing alone. Please see How to Feel Peng-Jin.
Peng-jin is the most important force to understand in tai chi. Without it, there is no power, no expansion, no fluidity nor flow of chi. Without it, all the other forces that make up tai chi will not work. Peng-jin or expansion comes from relaxation and letting go. It starts from the inside and radiates outward by opening every joint in the body. This article barely scrapes the surface of what peng-jin is and how it is used. To understand tai chi, it is important to take the time to learn as much as you can about peng-jin.