The Essentials of Yang-style Tai Chi Chuan explained by Tai Chi Master Wang Yongquan

Tai Chi
Tai Chi

Wang Yongquan, born in 1904 and passed away in 1987, with the alias “Zai Shan,” was the Vice Chairman of the Beijing Wushu Association. At the age of seven, he began learning martial arts under the guidance of his father and Yang Jianhou and Yang Shaohou, father and son. At the age of 14 (in 1917), he became a disciple of Yang Jianhou’s third son, Yang Chengfu, and continued his training until Yang Chengfu moved south in 1928.

I. General Principles

The fundamental characteristics of Yang-style Tai Chi Chuan are natural, gentle, and graceful, making the practitioner feel comfortable during the movements. When practicing Tai Chi, one should focus on demonstrating the features of relaxation, stability, slowness, and evenness. On this basis, gradually learn to use internal energy, achieving a state of relaxation, expansiveness, connectivity, and emptiness.

Relaxation means keeping the whole body relaxed, from the state of mind to movements, without tension. Overcoming clumsy force and restoring naturalness are essential. The prerequisite for relaxation is a tranquil mind, relaxing both the joints and muscles throughout the body, to the point of reaching the Yongquan acupoint (bubbling spring) in the soles of the feet.

During the process of sinking and relaxing the internal energy, one should not put the entire body weight on the lower limbs, avoiding excessive stress on the knees and lower legs. The lower abdomen must remain soft and relaxed, not tense.

“Qi sinks to the Dantian” means the continuous and gradual sinking of internal energy to the Dantian, guided by intention. It should not be misunderstood as forcefully compressing the Dantian.

Relaxation is active, not passive, and should be maintained persistently. Being mentally alert allows the body to be nimble. When the Qi and blood flow smoothly throughout the body, one experiences comfort and composure.

Stability means moving with a steady and balanced manner, maintaining equilibrium from the spirit to the body. The upper body should naturally align without tilting forward or backward or swaying from side to side. The lower body movements should be light, flexible, and round, supporting the vertical upper body. This allows one to be grounded, move steadily, maintain personal balance, and be less susceptible to external forces. Achieving this requires a stable and composed mind, avoiding mental distractions.

In both Tai Chi practice and push hands, one should avoid being tense and exerting excessive force. Stability is not passive but active, actively striving to maintain balance and coordination while integrating posture and internal energy use, which benefits both health and martial applications.

Slowness means moving the body slowly during the practice. Sustaining an appropriate slow pace allows for smooth internal energy circulation, unhindered movements, and regular breathing. It also provides time to shape postures and movements according to the principles of Tai Chi, correcting deviations and gaining insight into the practice.

If the movements are too fast, these purposes are hard to achieve. However, slowness doesn’t mean going extremely slow; it should be based on individual physical conditions and intentions, appropriately controlling the speed of practice.

Flexibility is required to avoid feeling breathless or rigid during slow movements. Practicing at a measured pace ensures agility while maintaining the body’s harmonious and rhythmic flow.

Evenness means the dynamic should be uniform in motion, posture, and breathing. This uniformity reflects relaxation, stability, and slowness. The movements should flow seamlessly from one to another, with the expression “motion flows like drawing silk” illustrating the need for continuous and even movements without sudden accelerations or decelerations.

Evenness should not be misunderstood as being passive or monotonous. Each movement flows from one point to another, forming a continuous and rhythmic combination of postures. The posture should remain symmetrical, free from any unnatural deformations violating the principles of movement.

Breathing should also correspond to the movements and postures, remaining even and natural. This fosters a sense of harmony and indicates the practitioner’s attainment of a certain level. On this foundation, further progress can be made in cultivating internal strength, exploring the mysteries of relaxation, expansiveness, connectivity, and emptiness—the essential path to mastering Tai Chi Chuan.

In the process of applying internal energy to relax the whole body, one can imagine the internal energy descending from the lower abdomen’s Dantian, flowing down the inside of both legs to the Yongquan acupoint in the soles of the feet. It then circulates back up on the outside of the legs to the hips, dispersing outward from there, forming an energy sphere with a diameter of about one meter, where the hips are positioned.

The process of dispersing internal energy can be likened to the ripple effect of a stone thrown into water. This method of using imagery allows internal energy to be diffused. For this to occur, internal energy must circulate smoothly and unobstructed throughout the body.

In Tai Chi practice, previous practitioners have emphasized the following saying: “Do not raise the elbows, relax the shoulders, open the chest, and let the Qi flow.” These guidelines illustrate the close relationship between joint movements and the smooth circulation of internal energy.

However, one must be cautious to avoid rigid shoulders or elbows, which might result in restricted movements. Instead, “Relax the shoulders and extend the elbows” should be the focus. This approach allows the shoulders and elbows to relax and extend freely within the context of internal energy sinking, while forming an energy sphere level with both shoulders.

The connection between the wrist and hand should be considered, represented in the traditional phrase “Sit the wrist.” Nevertheless, “Sit the wrist” can easily lead to a rigid hand gesture. Instead, “Drum the wrist” should be emphasized, creating a soft and straight hand gesture, facilitating the internal force originating from the base of the middle finger and making it easier to change hand gestures and techniques.

Flexible hand gestures provide comfort and smooth circulation of Qi and blood throughout the body. Even when practicing Tai Chi bare-handed in cold weather, the hands will feel warm instead of freezing due to stiffness.

The hand can transition into a palm, fist, or hook hand but should avoid stiffness. Whether using the palm or fist in any movement, it must remain soft and straight, as if holding a small, rounded and lively Qi ball in the palm. The fist should not be clenched tightly; instead, it should allow for a certain degree of looseness.

When performing the hook hand in the Single Whip stance, the hand should not be excessively curved, and the fingertips should naturally point downward, allowing internal energy to be emitted from the back of the hand, originating at the root of the middle finger. At any time, both hands should not push, strike, or press with stiffness, to avoid causing pain from severe impact.

The connection between the waist and hips is represented by the traditional phrase “Relax the waist and hips.” The waist is the central axis of the body’s movements, and the hips move in sync with the waist. Relaxing the waist and hips is crucial for maintaining flexibility in body movements. It is necessary to create an energy sphere around the waist, coordinating the movements of the waist and hips with the entire body, enhancing both health and martial benefits.

When practicing “Relax the waist and hips,” particular attention should be paid to aligning with the central axis of the body. One must avoid arching the hips and straightening

the waist or excessively bending and hunching the waist.

The ankles and feet are the foundation of the body, supporting the body’s weight. The traditional phrase “Ten toes grasp the ground” represents the state of the feet during the application of force, but it only refers to a momentary action.

During regular practice, the feet should remain grounded, imagining the Yongquan acupoints connecting with the ground, with the heels and soles of the feet naturally touching the ground. Exerting force by gripping the floor with the toes during practice leads to stiffness in the feet and ankles.

The feet should also remain flexible during movements. One should focus on the Yongquan acupoint, landing the heel when stepping forward, the toe when stepping backward, and rotating with the heel as the axis. Regardless of the stepping pattern, one should maintain the center of gravity between the “two points” and the “four points” (see The Essential Theory of Internal Work II), staying in a state of flexibility.

The upper and lower limbs correspond to each other. The traditional phrase “Outer Three Harmonies” refers to “hands and feet, elbows, and knees, shoulders, and hips.” This means that the upper and lower limbs, especially their corresponding joints, should complement and respond to each other.

Based on practical experience, coordination between the waist, shoulder, and hip circles is essential, with the waist as the primary focus. The waist should lead the upper and lower movements, coordinating them harmoniously. “Outer Three Harmonies” should not be simplistically understood as external movements’ coordination. Instead, one should continually perceive how intention connects relevant body parts. Imagine connecting the shoulder circle above the waist circle and the hip circle beneath it.

During the practice, use intention to connect the elbow and waist circles, allowing the knees to move along with the waist circle, forming mutual coordination between the elbows and knees. Use intention to sink the shoulders into the waist circle, making the hips move with the waist circle, forming mutual coordination between the shoulders and hips. By coordinating the movements of these joints, one can naturally integrate the movements of the hands and feet, achieving the “Outer Three Harmonies” in overall activity.

“III. Internal Work (Neigong)

The concepts we previously discussed, such as “using intention to guide qi and using qi to move the body,” and “Three Internal Harmonies,” share the same principles and significance as the “Internal Work” we are going to talk about here. “Spirit and intention combine, intention and qi combine, and qi and strength combine” indicate the interrelationship of spirit, intention, and qi in the practice of internal work. Generally speaking, practicing internal work refers to cultivating spirit, intention, and qi, making them mutually integrated, forming an interconnected whole.

Here, we must avoid misunderstanding that the final integration of these three elements should manifest in physical strength. This approach would lead to clumsy force and miss the true essence of Tai Chi Chuan, failing to unleash the power of internal work.

During the process of “using intention to guide qi and using qi to move the body,” the “qi” mentioned is not the breath but rather the same as the “qi and blood” in traditional Chinese medicine, referring to a physiological function that science has yet to fully explain—a form of qigong.

If the focus of training is on breathing, it is easy to develop breath holding, resulting in clumsy force, which is not conducive to health preservation or martial skill. When we talk about “intention,” we refer to the mind’s focus or mental imagery. “Spirit” refers to the consciousness and gaze. During practicing Tai Chi, one should merge spirit and intention, creating a mental synergy. Pursuing skill solely through intention might lead to qi stagnation and clumsy force.

The ancient boxing manuals emphasize “using intention, not force” and regard it as the path to reaching an advanced level. The true meaning here is to address the choice between intention and force during the practice of Tai Chi Chuan and push-hands. The internal work of Tai Chi should not be mystified; it can be understood as a requirement to exert a high degree of subjective initiative.

The secret of Tai Chi Chuan’s internal work lies in fully utilizing this mental power while avoiding clumsy force during health preservation and martial applications. When one reaches a higher level of skill, this mental power will exhibit remarkable capabilities. For example, practitioners can sense the presence, circulation, and release of internal energy during the practice or project a person much farther away during push-hands than clumsy force would allow.

The strength of Tai Chi Chuan’s mental influence is often manifested through the eyes. Therefore, both forms and push-hands training require highly skilled eye usage. Coordinating eye focus with movements fully taps into the power of the mind.

Achieving the “Three Internal Harmonies” in the practice allows one to nourish, mobilize, and utilize innate natural power, gradually eradicating clumsy force and continuously refining the martial art.

We have explained “Three External Harmonies” and “Three Internal Harmonies” separately. As skill progresses, one must achieve the integration of internal and external aspects. One can envision the body as a large spherical balloon with a cross formed by intersecting horizontal and vertical lines within the sphere. The cross’s intersection is the center, representing one’s core.

The requirement is to maintain balance at the four endpoints of the cross, symbolizing level shoulders and a stable posture to avoid tilting the body. The vertical line of the cross should align with the Baihui acupoint and Tailbone Gate, reflecting the concept of “empty the crown, relax the tailbone.” The intersection point of the cross’s front side represents the body’s center, a key focus in practicing Tai Chi Chuan.

The integration of internal and external aspects demands that body form and internal energy work in harmony to unleash the special functions and effects of Tai Chi Chuan. However, this integration is a challenging process that can only be achieved through dedicated study and diligent practice.

Typically, beginners start with expanding the form, where both the mind and body should remain relaxed. Relaxing the mind leads to smooth and natural movements. As proficiency improves, gradually condensing internal energy and focusing its circulation will lead to more substantial internal power. With a larger internal force, the body’s form naturally becomes more compact.

In the early stages of training, practitioners may not distinguish between body form and internal power. As skill progresses, they will understand the difference between body form and internal energy. For instance, when practicing “An Jin” (pressing energy), one must employ the external posture while emphasizing the internal pressing energy as the primary force, generated from the root of the middle finger, rather than relying on clumsy force produced by changes in posture and gestures.

The integration of internal and external aspects is the unified action of combining the “Three Internal Harmonies” and “Three External Harmonies.” The “Three Internal Harmonies” require a harmonious integration of spirit, intention, and qi. The six internal energies (An, Cai, Lie, Zhou, Kao, Tui) are closely related to elbow power (Zhouda), which serves as the backup and internal driving force. For instance, in employing “Lie Jin” (splitting energy), the internal energies of An, Cai, and Lie must work together for effective release.

IV. Stances

Tai Chi Chuan stances can be categorized into health preservation and martial skill. A health preservation stance does not cultivate martial skill, and a martial skill stance may not lead to health preservation. The focus should be adjusted based on the purpose of practicing Tai Chi Chuan.

The health preservation stance emphasizes being rounded, agile, and relaxed, using intention to guide the internal energy to circulate smoothly in three complete energy circles around the body and driving the body’s movement. This benefits the growth of internal energy and promotes overall health. The ancient boxing manuals use the term “Qian San Lian” to vividly explain this approach, emphasizing the harmonious unity in the practice of Tai Chi Chuan.

The martial skill stance emphasizes using internal power and combining techniques. The health preservation stance, which circulates three complete energy circles around the body, is divided into six half-circles split by the central axis. The ancient boxing manuals call this “Kun Liu Duan.” When practicing martial techniques, the emphasis lies in the aspect of confrontation.

These two approaches are not entirely separate but should complement and interact with each other.

Whether practicing forms or engaging in martial applications, there is always an alternation between posture and internal energy. Mastering this open and close alternation is a key skill of Tai Chi Chuan.

“Open” means extension, directing the internal energy to disperse through the body. The ancient boxing manuals say, “Qi originates from the center, manifests externally, and extends to all directions.” This means that one should use the internal energy to guide the body’s movements, making the actions of the limbs and body comfortable and smooth, opening and extending naturally.

“Close” means retraction, allowing the internal energy to return by using body movements. During the practice, “close” replenishes internal energy without excessive dissipation, ensuring a comfortable, smooth, and flexible transition.

Open and close are mutually dependent and transforming, like motion and stillness. One cannot open and then open again or close and then close again. Open and close must contain each other; when opening to a certain extent, one must close, and vice versa. Both motion and stillness, open and close, must be appropriately coordinated internally and externally, allowing the internal energy and body to run rhythmically in accordance with the principles.

Tai Chi

Chuan includes thirteen fundamental stances: Peng, Lu, Ji, An, Cai, Lie, Zhou, Kao, Front Step, Back Step, Left Glance, Right Gaze, and Center Stance. Based on the Eight Diagrams, Peng, Lu, Ji, and An represent the four cardinal directions (Kan, Li, Zhen, Dui), while Cai, Lie, Zhou, and Kao represent the four corners (Qian, Kun, Gen, Xun). Front Step, Back Step, Left Glance, Right Gaze, and Center Stance correspond to the five elements (Metal, Wood, Water, Fire, Earth). Together, they are referred to as the “Tai Chi Thirteen Techniques.”

Let’s provide brief explanations for each of these techniques:

The explanation for Peng Jin is as follows: “What does Peng Jin mean? It is like water supporting a boat, starting from the Dan Tian, and the head is suspended. The body possesses spring-like power that opens and closes with certain intervals. This can withstand a thousand pounds of force and allows for lightness as well. It may appear effortless, but it is not easy to achieve.”

In summary, Peng Jin should be like flowing water that can float a heavily loaded boat. The body’s spring-like power undulates like waves. Peng Jin is not achieved through mere physical strength but rather through the release of the three energy circles around the shoulders, elbows, and hips, which forms Peng Jin. Peng Jin should be maintained throughout the practice.

The explanation for Lu Jin is as follows: “What does Lu Jin mean? It means guiding the opponent’s force forward and harmonizing with it. Light and agile, the top is never exposed, and the opponent’s force will be prolonged. When the force is exhausted, it becomes empty naturally. The center of gravity is maintained. Do not let others take advantage of you.”

In summary, Lu Jin is about guiding the opponent’s force in the direction it is heading, leading it to land on empty. Lu Jin is not accomplished through physical force but through internal power. It uses the rotational movement of the central axis to neutralize the opponent’s momentum.

The explanation for Ji Jin is as follows: “What does Ji Jin mean? When using it, there are two ways: directly employing a single pure force to confront the opponent’s force, or indirectly using a responsive force, like a ball bouncing off a wall or a coin thrown into a drum, with a resounding sound.”

In summary, Ji Jin is like a ball hitting a wall, bouncing back with force. Ji Jin is not achieved through direct force but rather relies on internal power. The “Ji” stance involves sending force from the central axis, manifesting as a responsive, indirect force, like a ball bouncing back.

The explanation for An Jin is as follows: “What does An Jin mean? It is like water flowing, where softness contains hardness. When encountering strong forces, it becomes full and firm, but when encountering voids, it sinks and penetrates. Like waves, it rises and falls, and it drills into empty spaces.”

In summary, An Jin is like a whirlpool in rapid water, rising and falling like waves. When an external force is applied, the An Jin sinks into empty spaces. An Jin involves using the vertical line of the central axis to drive the internal energy outward.

The explanation for Cai Jin is as follows: “What does Cai Jin mean? It is like a balance scale. Regardless of the opponent’s force’s strength, it senses the opponent’s lightness and heaviness. When the opportunity arises, it will swiftly overturn, like a pestle pounding grain. Carefully maintain the center of gravity; otherwise, you will achieve nothing.”

In summary, Cai Jin plays the role of a scale weight on a balance. It responds to the opponent’s lightness or heaviness and overturns when the opportunity arises. Cai Jin relies on the stepping action of the hand under the central axis to release the internal energy downward, avoiding the use of physical force to push down.

The explanation for Lie Jin is as follows: “What does Lie Jin mean? It rotates like a flywheel, capable of supporting objects placed on it. Suddenly, it throws them several zhang away. It becomes like a swirling vortex in rapid water, creating swirling waves like spiral patterns. When a falling leaf lands on it, it instantly sinks and disappears.”

In summary, Lie Jin is like a rapid water vortex, swirling with waves and creating a sense of sinking and rebounding when an object lands on it. The “Lie” stance relies on coordinated rotation of the waist and elbow. The internal energy should not be directly applied to push; rather, it is formed by the movements.

The explanation for Zhou Jin is as follows: “What does Zhou Jin mean? The method is related to the Five Elements, dividing Yin and Yang, up and down, and distinguishing between emptiness and solidity. The chain-linked technique is unstoppable, and the blossoming hammer is even more ferocious. After integrating the six energies, its application becomes limitless.”

In summary, Zhou Jin incorporates the concept of the Five Elements and involves the use of the shoulder and back. The six energies (An, Cai, Lie, Zhou, Kao, Tui) all relate to Zhou Jin, which serves as the foundation for their effective application.

As for Front Step, Back Step, Left Glance, Right Gaze, and Center Stance, they primarily pertain to stepping techniques.

Front and back steps indicate orderly footwork transitions. Footwork is not solely about lower-body movements; it should be complemented by the upper body’s coordinated actions. For instance, if we imagine the upper body as an ancient bell, the bell’s central axis swings like a pendulum, signifying the movement of the body’s center of gravity. When stepping into a Bow Stance, the center of gravity shifts forward, resembling the pendulum swinging forward. When changing into an Empty Stance, the center of gravity moves backward, like the pendulum swinging backward.

Regardless of whether transitioning from an Empty Stance to a Bow Stance or vice versa, one should not rely on the contraction of leg muscles to produce clumsy

force. Instead, the change of center of gravity should be facilitated by the pendulum-like swing between the two legs. This approach ensures flexible footwork and prevents tension and discomfort in the knees and ankles.

In conclusion, the height and width of the stances and the size of the steps should be determined based on individual factors such as height, leg length, and level of skill. The aim is to avoid stiffness in the lower body and create conditions for a relaxed and agile body transformation.

“Left Glance” and “Right Gaze” imply being attentive to both sides of the body (or the ends of the “horizontal line of the Cross”) to maintain the body’s agility and balance. Only by consistently maintaining a stable and comfortable flow can one achieve the goal of fitness and internal energy cultivation. In martial applications, it is essential to fully employ one’s “horizontal line of the Cross” to control the opponent’s “horizontal line of the Cross.”

“Center Stance” is a critical element in Tai Chi practice. Whether for health preservation or martial skills, maintaining the center is crucial. Success lies in a centered and comfortable posture, providing support from all directions. The phrase from the old Tai Chi classics, “A standing body should be centered and upright to support all sides,” fully emphasizes the importance of centering.

In Tai Chi practice, it is particularly important to emphasize that movements start from the center and return to the center. The internal power of “Peng, An, Ji, Lu, Cai, and Lie” should be projected from the center, and the internal power of “Cai and Lie” should be guided back to the center. These requirements are based on the principle of centering and are integral to achieving internal energy circulation and agile application in martial arts. The most crucial aspect of martial skills is to control the opponent’s center. Those with advanced skills can gain an advantage by employing their relaxed and centered state, while those with lesser skills will be at a disadvantage if they lose their center.

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