Introduction to Taiji
Many people in the West are better acquainted with the graceful, flowing movements of Taiji forms than with the more static Qigong forms. However, the two share a common philosophical
background, and both can contribute to the development and maintenance of health and well-being. In essence, the forms that are seen performed as Taijiquan (literally, the "supreme ultimate fist," or "supreme ultimate boxing art") can be conceptualized as a dynamic form of Qigong, or "energy cultivation," and a way of regulating the system and preventing disease.
At its roots, Taijiquan is a powerful and effective martial art, but behind the martial applications lie the same Daoist principles: the development of prefect harmony between the Yin and Yang energies of the body, the promotion of smooth and uninhibited flow of Qi throughout the body, and the maintenance of maximal health.
Yang-style Taiji Top
The originator of Yang-style Taiji Quan was Yang Luchan (1800-1873), born in Yongnian County, Hebei Province. Brought up in a poor family, Yang Luchanwas sold to Chen Dehu in Cehnjiagou village as a child servant. While looking after Taiji Quan Master Chen Changxing, Yang Luchan learned martial arts from him. He returned to his native village as an adult and began to teach Taiji Quan to others. People in Yongnian County described his art as "silky boxing" and "soft boxing." Later, he went to Beijing and taught many members of the nobility in the Qing Dynasty.
To meet the needs of the general public, he dropped the difficult movements, such as jumps, foot stamping and force producing exercises. Yang's son revised this form into the Middle Frame. His grandson, Yang Chengfu, revised it once more and finalized it as the Big Frame. Simple and easy to learn, the Big Frame has become the most popular Yang-style Taiji Quan today. The Yangs enjoyed great fame on Beijing. After1923, Yang Chenfu visited Nanjing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Guangzhou and Hankou, where he taught and made popular the Yang-style Taiji Quan.
The Yang Style is characterized by its fully extended, simple, smooth, light, easy and natural movements. Practitioners should begin with relaxed effort and soft movements, accumulate softness into hardness, then make hard or soft movements properly in order to produce a display of grace and beauty. There are also high, middle and low frames, The beginners can adjust their physical power in practice depending on their age, sex and stamina. It can be used for curing illnesses, preserving health and improving the physique and boxing skills.
The Eight Skills of Taiji
1. Head Upright
To prop up the head is to raise the crown of the head properly. In Taiji Quan, make sure that the head is upright, the crown flat, the neck straight and the chin drawn in. It is required that the baihui acupuncture point at the crown of the head be propped up gently as if lifted up by a rope. At the same time, the crown of the head must be kept so flat that a bowl of water placed on it would not spill. To keep the head upright and the crown flat, the neck must be straight and the chin drawn in. But if overdone, this position will make the neck stiff and the movements unnatural. Therefore, in propping up the head, excess effort should be avoided. It must be natural. Once the crown of the head is raised properly, the energy will be summoned and the movements will become steady and sturdy.
2. The Energy Stream Flows to Dantian (Pubic Region)
To allow the energy stream to flow to dantian, the body techniques must be correct, with the chest broad and the abdomen solid. "Mind on dantian" means using the mind to guide the breathing and send the air and energy stream slowly to the belly below the navel. In practicing Taiji Quan exercises, abdominal breathing is generally used with the "mind on dantian" so as to create a state in which "the body moves in calmness with restrained energy stream and a free mind."
When abdominal breathing is used to increase the energy stream, attention should be paid to naturalness, evenness, and slow exhaling and inhaling. Breathing should cooperate naturally with the exercises. Breathing is naturally linked with the expansion of the chest and the movement of the shoulder blades. A movement is often accompanied by an inhalation and an exhalation. Breathing with the exercises coincides with the body's physiological demands. If used correctly, it helps make the movements more harmonious, round, smooth, gentle and steady.
3. Draw the Chest in and Straighten the Back
To draw the chest in means to relax the chest slightly inward so that the chest is broad and comfortable. This position is good for abdominal breathing. In other words, the radial distance of the thoracic cavity is prolonged from top to bottom and the diaphragm lowered when the joints of the shoulder blades and collar bones are relaxed, the arms slightly closed and the ribs held back. This activity can lower the body weight and improve the performance of the lungs and diaphragm. Drawing the chest in is different from drawing the chest back. Drawing the chest back tends to form a humpback and reduce the thoracic cavity, thus keeping the diaphragm from lowering and smoothing, hindering breathing and preventing the blood from flowing back to the heart. Drawing the chest in is also used for attack and defence in Taiji push-hand exercises. If techniques are to be used that will neutralize an attacking movement, drawing the chest in is necessary.
Straightening the back is linked with drawing the chest in. If the chest is drawn in, the back must be straight. To straighten the back is to relax the muscles of the back when the chest is drawn in slightly, with the third vertebra under the neck and between the shoulders slightly pulled up backward, not simply backward. In this way, the muscles of the back have a certain tension and elastic force, and the skin is tightened. As the back is linked with the shoulders and arms, some technical movements that apply force are often completed with the help of the shoulders and the back.
In drawing the chest in and straightening the back, the muscles of the chest and back must be relaxed, and there should be no intentional affectation.
4. Relax the Waist and Keep the Buttocks In
Taiji Quan requires the chest to be drawn in and the energy stream to flow to dantian. Therefore, when the chest is drawn in, the waist must be relaxed. To keep the waist relaxed, the whole back must be slightly arched. This will make the sitting and squatting exercises firmer. Relaxation of the waist helps keep down the energy stream and make the lower limbs firmer. It also plays a dominant role in the movements of advancing, retreating and turning, and in using the torso to guide the movements of the four limbs and in keeping the movements complete.
The buttocks should be tucked in slightly when the chest is drawn in, the back straightened and the waist relaxed. The reason for this is to keep the belly full and solid. With the buttocks tucked in, the muscles of the buttocks and waist should be as relaxed as possible, so that the muscles of the buttocks are extended outward and downward, then drawn forward and inward gently as if the lower abdomen is propped up by the buttocks.
5. Make the Crotch Round and Relax the Hips
The crotch is the perineum of the body. The baihui acupuncture point at the crown of the head must correspond to the perineum acupuncture point. This is necessary to keep the energy stream flowing freely to the top and the bottom.
The crotch must be round and solid. When the hips are apart and the knees turned slightly inward, the crotch is naturally round. If the knees are opened slightly, the thighs close inward and the hips separate a bit, the crotch is still round. When the perineum is raised slightly, the crotch is naturally solid. When the waist is relaxed and the buttocks tucked in, there will naturally be power from the crotch. Once the crotch has power, the lower limbs become even stronger and the standing steps steadier and firmer.
Taiji Quan stresses "making steps like a cat's walk". It calls for light and steady steps with both legs bent and supporting the body by turns during the exercises. Therefore, the joints of the hipbones must be relaxed and the knee joints nimble to ensure the free turning of the body and easy kicks and step changes of the legs.
6. Drop the Shoulders and Elbows
Taiji Quan requires its practitioners to drop their shoulders and elbows. The arms then feel relaxed and comfortable. This is the inner power of the upper limbs. The inner power is soft apparently, but strong inwardly, as if "a needle is wrapped in cotton." Apart from being dropped, the shoulders should tilt forward slightly so that the chest is completely empty and the back is arched in a circular form. The dropped elbows should also wrap slightly inward so the power will be applied to the upper limbs.
7. Stretch Fingers and Bend Wrist Backward
Stretch the fingers naturally and bend the wrist toward the back and radial side of the hand. For example, in pushing the palm forward, it is slightly cupped before it is pushed forward. This is called empty palm, The palm is stretched slowly from empty to solid. When the palm is pushed forward to the final point, the fingers are stretched out naturally and the palm bends backward at the wrist and the bottom of the palm contains power and protrudes forward so that the power that originates from the waist and the back flows through the dropped shoulders, dropped elbows, stretched fingers, bent wrists and protruding palms to reach the fingers. This is called solid palm. The movements of the palms are part of the movements of the whole body. Stretching the fingers and bending the wrists are actually intended to release the power from the whole body. Therefore, in boxing theory, the power of the whole body "is rooted at the feet, released from the legs, controlled by the waist and displayed in the fingers."
8. Keep the Spine Upright
Keeping the spine upright is important for keeping the body upright and comfortable. If the spine is not upright, it will be inclined and unbalanced. Beginners must make sure that their spine is spine is always upright, whether they are executing a vertical movement or an inclined movement. More important, the upright spine helps make the lower part of the body firm and steady. If the spine is inclined, the lower part of the body loses its center of balance. When the power of the part of the body is separated from that of the upper part of the body, the power is lost.
How to Practise Taiji Top
The simplified forms of TaijiQuan described in this book originated mainly from the Yang Style. It calls for even speed. Beginners should do the exercises slowly in all movements in order to appreciate the essentials. They should be done at an even speed from start to finish. As skill develops, increased speed follows. The time needed for this set of Taiji Quan is four to six minutes.
2.Free Choice Between Different Frames
Body height is not a significant factor in practicing Taiji Quan. For young and strong people, the frame should be low. Older and less mobile people may choose the high frame. The height of the whole frame should be decided from the starting form. All but some special movements, like push down and stand on one leg, should be kept at the same height.
3.Connections Between Forms
Taiji Quan exercises must be practiced continuously. Change of forms means the end of the previous form and the beginning of the connecting form. Beginners should avoid pauses or "discontinuation of power" during the connections, but there should be no hasty changes. Taiji Quan exercises and connections of movements are quite natural. Attention should be paid to the parts of the body and the directions of movements. The changes should be both steady and fluid.
4.Single Movements and Routines
Taiji Quan is composed of many single movements and forms. The movements have both generalities and peculiarities. The basis for grasping the whole set of Taiji Quan is to understand the technical requirements of every movement. Therefore, the principal forms (such as Wave Hands like Clouds, Single Whip, Grasp Peacock's Tail) should be practiced repeatedly so as to make them perfect. Practice of the whole set is essential to get a firm grasp of the inherent rules and to strengthen the continuity. Ideally, the principal forms and unfamiliar movements should be practiced three to five times, then the whole set once or twice every day. Of course, the more often you practice, the better.
Taiji Quan is a sport combining form and mind. According to boxing theory. "Form is the body, mind is the application." Expressed in a common metaphor, form is the glass, mind is the wine filling it. Without wine, there is nothing in the glass. Beginners should first get to know the special features of using the mind in the whole set of Taiji Quan, that is, naturalness without overstress on the mind, but not looseness. Second, beginners should understand the purpose of every form and every movement and combine mind with form during practice. For example, in dong the exercise of Crane Spreads Its Wings, beginners should imitate a white crane in its perching posture in the eternal form and, at the same time, imagine the gentleness and liveliness of the bird. In this way, they will gradually deepen their understanding of the concept of Taiji Quan.
6.How to Handle Contradictions
"Taiji" is a harmonious method of balance. Taiji Quan skillfully handles the different pairs of opposites in the movement and thus achieves a high degree of unity. For example, advance and retreat, left and right, is always "retreat first when you intend to advance" and "first right when you mean left," so that retreat is advance and left is right. Take relaxation and uprightness as another example: you have to be sure that there is uprightness in looseness and there is looseness in uprightness. When it is upright, it is not tight; when it is loose, it is not lax. The third example is the relationship between bent and straight. All movements in Taiji Quan are curved movements and should not be restrained. The joints should not be bent too much, this means that "there is straightness in the bend." Understanding the methods of handling the contradictions in Taiji Quan is practice in combining its theory and techniques.
7.Basic Skills not to Be Neglected
The hand forms, stances and footwork changes are the basic skills used in all movements from beginning to end. Therefore, these basic skills must be practiced often. Every hand form or stance is related to the whole movement. They are often the "center of balance" when a movement is completed. Changes in footwork embody the "empty and solid" relations of Taiji Quan and they are the transitional connections from the individual parts to the whole. When footwork changes nimbly, the body movements become light, and the feet become so firm they seem "rooted." If the footwork is heavy, it is difficult to practice Taiji Quan well. Regular and diligent practice of the basic skills, is essential to mastery of Taiji Quan.
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