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How Do You Learn Taijiquan?

by Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming, June 6, 2011
Dr. Yang performing taijiquan (Photo: P Segadaes)

Dr. Yang performing taijiquan (Photo: P Segadaes)

Whether or not a person learns something depends upon his attitude and seriousness. First he must make a firm decision to learn it, and then he must have a strong will to fulfill his intention. He needs perseverance and patience to last to the end. Even if a person has all these virtues, his achievement might still be different from that of another person’s who has the same qualities and personality. The difference is due to his manner of learning. If a person practices and then ponders every new thing he has learned and keeps going back to research and master it, he will naturally be better than the person who never explores what he has learned.

Taijiquan theory is deep and profound. It takes many years of learning, research, pondering, and practice to gradually grasp the key to the art and "enter into the temple." However, the more you learn, the less you are likely to feel you understand. It is just like a bottomless well or a ceaselessly flowing river. There is an ancient list of five mental keys the student of taijiquan needs in order to reach the higher levels of the art. It is said: 1. Study wide and deep (博學); 2. Investigate (審問); 3. Ponder carefully (慎思); 4. Clearly discriminate (明辨); and 5. Work perseveringly (篤行). If you follow this procedure you can learn anything, even how to become a wise and knowledgeable person.

In addition to the above learning attitude, a good master is also an important key to learning the high art of taijiquan. In China, there is a saying: "A disciple inquires and searches for a master for three years, and a master will test the disciple for three years." It also says: "A disciple would rather spend three years looking for a good master than learn three years from an unqualified one."

Learn From a Good Taijiquan Master; Books

A good master who comprehends the art and teaches it to his students is the key to changing a rock into a piece of gold. It is the teacher who can guide you to the doorway by the shortest path possible and help you avoid wasting your time and energy. It is said: "To enter the door and be led along the way, one needs oral instruction; practice without ceasing, the way is through self-practice." It is also said: "Famous masters create great disciples." On the other hand, a good master will also judge if a disciple is worth his spending the time and energy to teach. A student can be intelligent and practice hard in the beginning, and change his attitude later on. A student who practices, ponders, humbly asks, and researches on his own will naturally be a good successor to the style. Usually a master needs three years to see through a student's personality and know whether he is likely to persevere in his studies and maintain a good moral character.

In the last seventy years since taijiquan has been popularized, many good taijiquan books and documents have been published. A sincere taiji practitioner should collect and read them. Books are the recording of many years of learning, study, and research. If you do not know how to use this literature to your advantage, you will surely waste more time and energy wandering in confusion. However, you should not completely believe what any book says. What is written is only the author's opinions and personal experience. You should read widely, investigate, and then clearly discriminate between the worthwhile and the not so worthwhile. If you do this well you can minimize confusion and avoid straying too far from the right path.

In addition, you should take advantage of seminars, summer camps, and other ways to get in touch with experienced masters. In this way you can catch many key points and gain a feeling for many things which you may have only read about. But remember, you must research on your own in great detail in order to achieve a deeper understanding of the art. Thus it is said: "You don't ever want to give up your throat; question every talented person in heaven and earth. If [you are] asked: how can one attain this great achievement, [the answer is] outside and inside, fine and coarse, nothing must not be touched upon."

Taijiquan Learning Procedure

When you learn an internal art such as qigong or taijiquan, you should always follow the training procedures. In the beginning, you should pay attention to the movements and try to be as accurate as possible. These movements were created and experienced by many wise pioneers of taijiquan. Only after you have mastered these movements skillfully will you be on the right path for learning taijiquan. Moreover, you must also learn how to relax physically to a profound level, keeping yourself centered and rooted both physically and mentally. This process is called regulating the body (tiao shen, 調身). Only after you have reached the stage of regulating without regulating, should you proceed to the next stage. While you are training at this level, you will not have to constantly regulate the body consciously, since you will have already made it into a habit and can perform your physical forms naturally. This is what is meant by "regulating without regulating."

Breathing for Health; Martial Arts

The next step is learning how to coordinate your breathing with the movements. With correct breath coordination, you can relax more deeply, which allows you to bring your mind to a more sagacious state. This is the step of regulating the breathing (tiao xi, 調息). You should practice until you can regulate without the use of your conscious mind, the aforementioned regulating without regulating. Your breathing must become natural, smooth, deep, slender and calm. Once you have reached this stage, you will have provided a good environment for your wisdom mind to regulate the emotional mind (tiao xi, 調心).

If you practice taijiquan simply for relaxation and health when you regulate your mind, then you will learn how to lead the qi to the centers of the palms and the soles of the feet. This is called four gate breathing (si xin hu xi, 四心呼吸). You can also lead the qi to the skin and beyond, to enhance your guardian qi. This will strengthen your immune system and raise your spirit.

However, if you practice taijiquan for martial arts, then you must learn to use your mind to lead the qi to the arms for performing techniques, and to the legs for rooting. In order to manifest power efficiently, you must build a sense of enemy. To do this, you imagine that you are in a combat situation, using each of your performed techniques to defend yourself against an enemy. You must have a sense of controlled urgency because in such a combat situation, you must be alert but not in a state of panic. Only by training all of your techniques with this sense of enemy will you build up your skills to a level that will be useful to you in a real emergency. You must know the martial applications of each movement without having to stop and think. These martial applications are the essence and the root of taijiquan. This leading of the qi is called regulating the qi (tiao qi, 調氣).

Finally, your ultimate goal in taijiquan practice is to harmonize your energy with the energy of the natural universe. In order to achieve this goal, you must regulate your spirit (tiao shen, 調神) to a firm, strong, peaceful and enlightened state. Only then may you reach the final cultivation of the Dao: the unification of heaven (i.e., universe) and humanity (tian ren he yi, 天人合一). When you reach this stage, you will find that even your purpose in studying taijiquan, the very ego that holds the desire to learn and improve, will itself dissolve into the patterns of taiji.

Taijiquan is only the way or path to understanding life and comprehending the universe. As you near your goal, you will find that your motivation to learn martial arts is sublimated, and the health of your body, mind, and spirit can be unified and maintained without conscious effort.

Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming, is a renowned author and teacher of Chinese martial arts and Qigong. Born in Taiwan, he has trained and taught Taijiquan, Qigong and Chinese martial arts for over forty-five years. He is the author of over thirty books, and was elected by Inside Kung Fu magazine as one of the 10 people who has "made the greatest impact on martial arts in the past 100 years." Dr. Yang lives in Northern California.


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