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Basic principles and training methods of traditional Tai Chi

      Traditional Tai Chi Chuan and modern Tai Chi exercises are completely different. Their principles and training methods maintain the unique characteristics of early Tai Chi Chuan. This includes their requirements in practice and application. The training and application of traditional Tai Chi Chuan are primarily based on the principles outlined in the “Tai Chi Chuan Theory.” It revolves closely around the traditional principles and techniques, integrating the practice and application of Tai Chi Chuan.

       The practice of traditional Tai Chi Chuan involves cultivating the mind and refining the body. Therefore, traditional Tai Chi Chuan is a practice of unifying the mind and body. As Wu Yu-Xiang stated in “Essential Explanation of Tai Chi Boxing Theory”: “The mind comes first, then the body follows,” and “though the body moves, the mind should be tranquil.” Only when the mind and body are in harmony can one adjust and control both internal and external aspects effectively, achieving the desired effects and results. Traditional Tai Chi Chuan combines health preservation and martial application. The training is like nurturing an army over a thousand days, and the application is like using that army in battle. Training involves a combination of exercises and preservation, ensuring the practitioners improve their skills without causing harm, resulting in a highly effective and disciplined combat force.

       In traditional Tai Chi Chuan, the key is to achieve a coordinated and whole-body power by effectively combining the mind and body. This utilization of whole-body power is based on a grasp of the principles of yin and yang transformations, which manifest in aspects such as advancing and retreating, speed and slowness, emptiness and fullness, yielding and issuing, relaxation and tension, and firmness and softness. As the ancient boxing manuals state: “Wherever there is movement, there is emptiness and fullness (each movement can be divided into yin and yang attributes); everywhere has this emptiness and fullness (no matter how many forms of yin and yang exist, they adhere to the mechanism of yin and yang).” Understanding this principle helps define the direction and nature of our practice and determine the methods to transform these principles into actual applications.

         An analogy can be drawn between the human body and an army, with different parts of the body corresponding to different departments and soldiers. To ensure effective execution of commands, one must start with adhering to unified methods. The key is “softness.” Tightness consumes muscular energy and mental strength, while softness conserves energy and nourishes the spirit. Softness is not merely about relaxation; it includes active and passive aspects. Active softness starts with a relaxed mental state, cultivating internal tranquility. When the mind is at ease, the nerves naturally relax, and the muscles follow suit. At the same time, one must adhere to the eight essentials of body alignment: raising the head, sinking the chest, relaxing the shoulders, dropping the elbows, wrapping the crotch, protecting the groin, and hollowing the chest and extending the back.

       These eight essentials are based on the foundation of softness and result in coordinated changes in eight parts of the body. Without the premise of softness, the same practices lose their significance. Many people strive for softness but overlook the importance of the eight essentials, leading to fragmented movements and the inability to develop integrated power. To achieve the integration of whole-body power, one must maintain continuity from root in the feet, power generation in the legs, control by the waist, and expression through the fingers—a seamless flow. To achieve this level, effort is required in understanding the concept of “using intention, not force” and “not depending on strength throughout the body.”

       Tai Chi Chuan movements are based on human body dynamics. Tai Chi Chuan is not esoteric; it is not achieved through mere imagination or visualization. It starts with intention and is accompanied by action. Similar to eating or walking, one sets a goal first and then approaches it with appropriate force to achieve the intended outcome. The key to “using intention, not force” is to apply the right amount of force guided by consciousness. It involves not using excessive or awkward force but employing just enough force to execute each movement properly. It is crucial to understand the concept of borrowing ground force. In addition, “whole-body unburdened force” means that any joint should not serve as a force point. Otherwise, the root power from the feet will be cut off and cannot be transferred. In the practice of pushing hands, the focus is on finding each other’s force point and using it as the basis for applying counterforce. This is the principle of “hitting reality, not emptiness.” Thus, it is necessary to train so that all joints avoid developing the habit of hanging force. If a force point appears during movement, one should immediately use the waist and legs to transform it. Each joint should rotate and coordinate with the physiological instinct of turning and folding. The folding and circular movement of the joints on the foundation of relaxation is where the “big softness” lies, not in struggling for short-term gains on force points. Therefore, the practice of traditional Tai Chi Chuan must adhere to the requirement of “using intention, not force,” and “not depending on force throughout the body,” which can be achieved through relaxation.

        Understanding the above points is essential in practicing Tai Chi Chuan. One must have form, intention, and relaxation simultaneously. These three conditions are essential to achieve the desired effects of truly mastering Tai Chi skills. Moreover, one must master the practice of “power originates from the feet.” The ancient texts summarized it well: “Being relaxed leads to sinking (not heaviness), sinking leads to lightness (dynamic rootedness is light, unrooted movement is floating), lightness leads to agility, agility leads to movement, movement leads to change, change leads to transformation—flexible and circular.” Therefore, the purpose of relaxation is to let go of the crude strength and allow it to sink downward. By sinking the body’s power to the feet, the movement can have roots, and the force can fully utilize the body’s weight to create striking power through the reaction force from the ground. This is a profound and delicate principle of combat. The realization of this principle is impossible without softness.

          To achieve this effect during practice, one must be soft, pliable, slow, steady, calm, round, and even. It is essential to use bones for support while keeping muscles as relaxed as possible—separating “bones and flesh.” In this way, muscles are relaxed, and bones are firm, avoiding the unnecessary exertion of force to maintain balance and stability. Only then can one truly achieve the purpose of sinking downward. The practitioner can maintain a stable and relaxed weight-bearing leg, and the empty leg can move lightly and flexibly, allowing the continuous alternation of empty and substantial in technique, coordinating with the waist as the axis to achieve the effect of circular transforming force. Without the ability to train the feet to change between substantial and insubstantial, light and heavy, there is no point in just relying on waist rotations in combat.

         Besides the above principles, to apply the practice practically, the practitioner must coordinate the upper and lower body, and the internal and external aspects. As the ancient text states: “One movement involves all movements, one stillness involves all stillness.” This refers to the coordination of hands and feet. Only when the hands and feet are coordinated can the effect of “upper and lower following each other, making it difficult for the opponent to enter” be achieved. Otherwise, it would be as the old saying goes: “Hands

        move, feet don’t move; hitting the opponent will not be wise.” Therefore, when practicing the Tai Chi form, the practitioner’s mind should be in sync with the body’s movements, as if the whole body were composed of countless gears, smoothly moving in unison when in motion and tranquility. By following this method of training, the practitioner gradually develops the ability for the upper and lower body to follow each other and achieve overall coordination—a condition for cultivating internal power. The dynamic and static, dynamic and static switching during form practice is continuous and unending, making the practitioner enjoy the practice.

        Lastly, the unity of internal and external refers to the coordination of external form and breath. Tai Chi Chuan emphasizes naturalness and avoids artificiality. Therefore, the coordination of form and breath requires understanding that breath follows form in motion. For example, when the form involves internal gathering and storage, the breath must follow with inhalation to harmonize. When the form involves external release and expansion, the breath must follow with exhalation to complement the movement. If the coordination of form and breath is not evident in the practice of the form, the quality of issuing power will be significantly compromised. Furthermore, the unity of internal and external refers to the unity of internal intention and external form. The form of Tai Chi Chuan must originate from internal intention; otherwise, it will be like a lifeless body without thought. Therefore, one should cultivate internal intention and external sentiment, with sentiment manifested in form. This integration of form and intention makes the Tai Chi form alive and demonstrates the inner beauty of traditional Tai Chi Chuan. Thus, it is essential to always focus on intention, be relaxed, and to achieve the balanced unity of internal and external aspects.

           Only by following these principles and practices can one achieve results efficiently in Tai Chi Chuan. The martial techniques of traditional Tai Chi Chuan can only be developed based on correct and rational training methods. By integrating movements and connecting each posture seamlessly, one can refine the variations of internal power. Like steel, the framework of the movements is shaped like a mold for steel refining. Over time, one cultivates whole-body integrated power that is both structured and flexible. This is why traditional Tai Chi Chuan is developed through practicing the Tai Chi form, and it is the basis for achieving its unique martial effects. This deep and delicate practice aims to develop the agility, softness, lightness, and strength of the whole body by refining movements like flowing rivers and seas, creating a joyful experience for practitioners.

        The form’s smoothness and harmony enable the mind’s directives to be successful in every aspect, and the mind’s strategic actions also allow the form to be comfortably expanded. This is what is referred to in the ancient texts as “Move Qi with the mind and strive to remain calm, then one can collect and converge the Qi into the bones; move the body with Qi and strive to be smooth, then one can conveniently respond from the heart.” This high degree of coordination between form and intention naturally provides sufficient space for the internal Qi and blood to nourish and flourish. This internal Qi can harmoniously blend with the body’s internal structure due to the soft, pliable, slow, steady, calm, round, and even nature of traditional Tai Chi Chuan. Consequently, it subtly transforms the internal aspects and strengthens the practitioner’s essence, Qi, and spirit. As Wu Yu-Xiang well put it in the ancient texts, “Qi is nourished directly without harm,” indicating that there is no need for separate Qi training. It is through the highly harmonious integration of form and intention that our internal Qi can be nourished directly. The nature of this internal Qi is entirely based on the rules of never exceeding or lacking in the coordination between form and intention, or gradually approaching the target of achieving an optimal balance.

            Therefore, in my view and based on my practical experience, traditional Tai Chi Chuan’s practice of the Tai Chi form has profound and unique qualities. Within the training system of traditional Tai Chi Chuan, the importance of large frame and old frame forms is necessary and reasonable. The essence lies in the extensive opening and closing, expanding and contracting, and stretching and flexibility, all guided primarily by intention and form. This allows for full range of motion in the joints, stretching the surrounding ligaments. This not only improves the flexibility of the joints but also strengthens the elasticity of the surrounding fascia. It is through this process that the range and strength of the joints’ rotation can be enhanced. The expansion of the form shatters and blends the constraints of artificial force, gradually bringing it into a large, medium, and small convergence. The internal power that comes out from within makes the large frame form lively and full of vibrancy, according to each form’s purpose and mechanism. This is the principle and process of “going from expansion to gradual compactness,” and it must not be overstepped.

          The ancient texts state, “To enter the gate and be guided requires oral transmission,” indicating the importance of a teacher. In the process of teaching and learning traditional Tai Chi Chuan, students must respect their teacher to internalize every word and instruction and contemplate and scrutinize them repeatedly. Students must follow their teacher persistently, constantly seeking the teacher’s guidance and correction in their practice. If the form deviates, genuine and pure Tai Chi skills cannot be developed. Establishing a correct form is an exceedingly significant matter. Without a knowledgeable teacher, one should always be with the teacher! In daily practice, try to find a quiet place to seek mental clarity, calmness, and harmony, as it significantly benefits the progress of one’s skills. Furthermore, as stated in “Mirror of Medicine”: “Within one day, there are twelve moments. Wherever the intention goes, everything is possible.” Considering that the time we specifically dedicate to Tai Chi practice is limited, and the majority of our time is spent on other tasks, it is essential to balance the amount and time spent on practicing Tai Chi. Overdoing it can lead to injury! Therefore, during other daily activities like walking, standing, sitting, and lying down, one should always follow the various essentials and principles required in Tai Chi practice. This training state, which others may not see but is clear in one’s mind, will, over time, significantly enhance the effectiveness of the Tai Chi practice.

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