Sometimes, we can witness a situation where someone practices Tai Chi hurriedly without any proper adjustment. They start comparing moves without focus, their hands and feet lack stability, and once they finish, they hastily leave. What are they missing? They lack the essential adjustments and perseverance required to enter the realm of Tai Chi.
The so-called entry into the realm of Tai Chi primarily involves adjusting both body and mind. The lessons from many years of practicing Tai Chi have taught me that before every practice session, one must diligently adjust their body and mind. If this adjustment is neglected, the effectiveness of the Tai Chi practice will be greatly diminished. Moreover, this adjusted state must be maintained throughout the entire practice. Ignoring the preparation of body and mind before practicing Tai Chi will hinder the path to understanding Tai Chi deeply, and at its worst, one’s entire practice session will be in vain.
How does one adjust their body and mind? What are the principles and criteria? In general terms, it means “stand well, relax well, and be tranquil.” How does one stand well, relax well, and be tranquil? Different practitioners at various levels and stages of Tai Chi will have different understandings and standards. Here, we’ll remember a general principle: “Still the mind and achieve tranquility; release tension and sink the breath to the dantian.”
Let’s begin with the stillness of the mind. Tai Chi is a form that relies entirely on the use of intention. As the ancients said, “A scattered mind will not achieve anything.” “Still the mind and achieve tranquility” means that at the beginning of the practice, one must first cast aside distracting thoughts, gather and focus the mind, and concentrate on the Tai Chi movements with a serene and focused mind. This seemingly simple task can sometimes be quite difficult because we all live in a complex reality filled with various desires. Besides Tai Chi, other daily life matters, big and small, will unavoidably entangle us. Sometimes, thoughts that never occurred to us before will arise during the practice, disturbing our concentration. They may come and go, diverting or disrupting our focus. Sometimes, you may feel attentive and enthusiastic during the first couple of repetitions of the form, but after a few more, you find it difficult to sustain the same level of mental energy. This is a sign of depleted internal energy and weakened mental strength.
“One achieves tranquility,” what is your standard for it? Do you find it simple?
Some great masters, regardless of how noisy their surroundings are or how many unsatisfying things are happening in their lives, can remain undistracted and fully concentrated during their Tai Chi practice, maintaining consistency from start to finish. Just from observing their spiritual cultivation and mental attitude, they have reached the realm described by the ancients as “like waves on a vast ocean, calm and serene, unaffected by disturbances.”
Tai Chi is a style that “subdues hardness with softness,” so it emphasizes relaxation in body structure while maintaining support. “Release tension and sink the breath to the dantian” means that before each practice session, one should focus on feeling the relaxation in muscles and joints, sinking the breath to the lower abdomen, and adjusting the center of gravity downward.
“Relax muscles and joints” is emphasized in all schools of Tai Chi, with differences lying in the extent to which they pursue relaxation. However, one point must be emphasized: any form that is rigid and stiff, regardless of the reason, is no longer Tai Chi. “Sink the breath to the dantian” borrows from the terminology of traditional qigong. In our Tai Chi practice, it is easy to accumulate stagnation in the chest and lungs due to breathing patterns. When our breath sinks down to the abdomen or below, we can consider that we have achieved “sinking the breath to the dantian.” Of course, there are higher standards for this, as the ancients have mentioned, like “a true master’s breath is based on the heels,” meaning that at the highest level of practice, their breathing seems to come from the heels. Of course, we cannot breathe from our heels, but for those who have reached an advanced stage of breath control, they may barely feel any nasal breathing, and their every life activity seems to be rooted in their heels. “Adjust the center of gravity downward” is undoubtedly related to relaxing muscles and joints and sinking the breath to the dantian. For Tai Chi, adjusting the center of gravity is crucial. It can be said that without adjusting the center of gravity, there is no Tai Chi! Pay attention to the phrase “adjust the center of gravity downward”; it is not related to the height of your standing posture. Regardless of whether you stand tall or squat low, the entire body’s center of gravity must be lowered through relaxation of muscles and joints, and it must be adjusted to the feet. This way, whether moving or still, you can maintain lightness and rootedness.
Isn’t there a saying, “Masters of the martial arts walk without making a sound under their feet”? Why is that so? This is because such individuals can lower their body’s center of gravity to their feet, while keeping their upper body relaxed and their lower body stable and light. Imagine someone with a stiff upper body and an elevated center of gravity; they will inevitably make swaying movements while walking, commonly referred to as “missteps” in martial arts jargon, and their heels will experience more significant impact. Naturally, it becomes impossible to walk without making any sound.
It is relatively easy to achieve muscle relaxation, but it is challenging to grasp the concept of lowering the center of gravity. Proficient masters can entirely focus their center of gravity on their feet, even sinking deep into the ground. If, after extended periods of standing and practice, we are unable to sense the feeling of lowering our center of gravity, we may seek the guidance of skilled masters or practice auxiliary exercises to gain a deeper understanding of this principle.
Even after understanding and achieving relaxation and sinking, the actual practice is not without difficulties. After achieving relaxation and sinking, the lower body has to endure significant effort, and some individuals may experience stiffness throughout their body after performing a few sets of movements. People who have been busy with their daily activities during the day may feel their legs become heavy like lead when they practice Tai Chi in the evening. Sometimes, achieving relaxation and sinking might prove challenging. This sensation of stagnation and heaviness may have additional reasons: during the day, the body is yang, with qi and blood located in the upper body, hence feeling light; at night, the body is yin, with qi and blood located in the feet, leading to a feeling of sluggishness.
Regarding the importance of the beginning posture, I believe that Wu-style Tai Chi has done it best. In Wu-style, before starting the form, the body appears motionless on the outside, but internally, it is already in motion. It starts by relaxing from the left side, starting from the left heel, progressively relaxing through the left shoulder to the crown of the head. Then, it sinks down from the right side, sinking through the right shoulder, right abdomen, right knee, and finally to the right heel, completing a full body relaxation and the transformation of Tai Chi’s Yin and Yang.
Tai Chi is a clever martial art deeply influenced by Chinese traditional culture, especially the essence of Daoism. It emphasizes both the mind and body, incorporating broadness and simplicity. To truly achieve proficiency, one must understand the principles and apply intelligence. Otherwise, after decades of dedicated practice, one may suddenly realize that they have been making mistakes all along. To talk about “Four ounces deflecting a thousand pounds” and the concept of “subduing hardness with softness,” one must attain the essence of it!