Steps in Learning Taijiquan
Every taijiquan master has his own sequence of training, emphasizing his methods and content.
The following lists general training procedures according to my learning experience with three taijiquan masters and my teaching experience of more than forty years. This is a guide only to the bare-hand training procedures of taijiquan.
The general sequence of taijiquan training is as follows:
- 1. Understanding the fundamental theory of taijiquan
- 2. Relaxation, calmness, and concentration practice
- 3. Breath training
- 4. Experiencing and generating qi
- 5. Qi circulation and breathing
- 6. Still meditation
- 7. Fundamental stances
- 8. Breath coordination drills
- 9. Fundamental moving drills
- 10. Solo taijiquan
- 11. Analysis of the martial applications of the sequence
- 12. Beginning stationary taiji pushing hands
- 13. Fundamental forms of taiji jin training
- 14. Hen and ha sound training
- 15. Fast taijiquan
- 16. Advanced taiji pushing hands (both stationary and moving)
- 17. Advanced taiji jin training
- 18. Qi expansion and transportation training
- 19. Martial applications of taiji pushing hands
- 20. Free-pushing hands (both stationary and moving)
- 21. Taiji fighting set
- 22. Taiji free fighting
Questions to Ask Yourself
Before the taijiquan beginner starts training, he should ask himself several questions: Why do I want to learn taijiquan? What benefits do I hope to gain? Am I likely to continue training for a long time?
After you have answered these questions you should then ask: Does this taijiquan style offer what I want? Is this master qualified? Does this master have a training schedule? How long and how deep can this master teach me? Will this master teach me everything he knows or will he keep secrets when I approach a certain level? After I have studied for many years, will I be able to find an advanced master to continue my study? In order to answer these questions, you have to survey and investigate. You have to know the historical background of the style and the master's experience. Once you have answered the above questions, then you can begin your taijiquan study without any doubt or confusion.
Fundamental Theory of Taijiquan
The first step in learning taijiquan is to understand the fundamental theory and principles through discussion with your master, reading the available books, studying with classmates, and then pondering on your own. You should ask yourself: How does taijiquan benefit the body and improve health? How can taijiquan be used for martial purposes? What are the differences between taijiquan and other martial styles? Once you have answers to these questions, you should have a picture of the art and an idea of where you are going. The next question to arise should be: How do I train the relaxation, calmness, and concentration which are the most basic and important aspects of taijiquan? This leads you to the second step of the training.
Usually, if you have the right methods and concepts, you can train your mind to be calm and concentrated and can relax physically in a short time. Keeping this meditative attitude is very important for beginning training. The next step is to train your breathing. The breathing must be deep, natural, and long. If you are interested in health only, you can use Buddhist or normal abdominal breathing. However, if you want to advance to martial applications, you should train and master Daoist, or reverse abdominal breathing. You should be able to expand and withdraw the muscles of the abdomen area easily. After you have trained your breath correctly, you should then begin to sense the qi in your abdomen and dan tian. This will lead to the fourth –step—generating and experiencing qi. If you are interested in knowing more about taijiquan and breathing, please refer to the book: Tai Chi Qigong, published by YMAA.
Usually, qi can be generated in two ways: externally and internally. To generate qi externally is called wai dan (外丹), and when it is generated internally it is called nei dan (內丹). Through training qi generation you will gradually realize what qi is and why smooth qi circulation benefits the body. You will also build up your sensitivity to the movement of qi. The more you train, the more sensitive you will become. After a time, you should then go to the next step—circulating qi. This is best practiced through still meditation, which will enhance your qi generation and circulation. Qi circulation is guided by the calm mind and made possible by a relaxed body. You must train your mind to guide the qi wherever you wish in coordination with correct breathing. First you should develop small circulation, which moves the qi up the spine and down the center of the front of the body (i.e., governing and conception vessels, 任脈，督脈). Eventually you should develop grand circulation whereby qi is circulated to every part of your body. When you have completed the above six steps, you should have built a firm foundation for taijiquan practice. With correct instruction, it should take less than six months to complete the above training (except for grand circulation).
Stances and Breath Coordination Drills
The above six steps are purely mental training. When you practice these, you can simultaneously practice the fundamental stances that build the root for the taijiquan forms. You should be familiar with all the stances and should practice them statically to strengthen your legs. Also, at this stage you can begin fundamental breath coordination drills. These drills are designed for the beginning student to train:
- Coordination of breathing and movement
- Coordination of qi circulation and the forms
- Smoothness and continuity
- Calmness and concentration of the mind.
These drills will help you experience qi circulation and the mood or atmosphere of taijiquan practice. After you have mastered the fundamental stances and fundamental drills, you should then go on to the fundamental moving drills.
Taijiquan Solo Sequence
The taijiquan solo sequence is constructed with about thirty-seven apparent techniques and more than two hundred hidden techniques. It is practiced to enhance qi circulation and improve health, and it is the foundation of all taijiquan martial techniques. It usually takes from six months to three years to learn this sequence, depending on the instructor, the length of the sequence, the student's talent, and most importantly, his or her commitment to practice. After a student has learned this sequence, it will usually take another three years to attain a degree of calmness and relaxation and to internalize the proper coordination of the breathing. When practicing, not only the whole of your attention, but also your feelings, emotions, and mood should be on the sequence. It is just like when musicians or dancers perform their –art— their emotions and total being must be melded into the art. If they hold anything back, then even if their skill is very great, their art will be dead.
When you finish learning the solo sequence, you should then start discussing and investigating the martial applications of the postures. This is a necessary part of the training of a martial arts practitioner, but it will also help the non-martial artist to better understand the sequence and circulate qi. With the instruction of a qualified master, it will take at least two or three years to understand and master the techniques. While this stage of analysis is going on, you should begin to pick up fundamental (fixed step) pushing hands.
Pushing hands trains you to listen to and to feel the opponent's jin, understand it, neutralize it, and then counterattack. There are two aspects of pushing hands training. The first emphasizes feeling the opponent's jin and then neutralizing it, and the second emphasizes understanding the emitting of jin and its applications. Therefore, when you start the fundamental pushing hands, you should also start fundamental jin training that is usually difficult to practice and understand. For this, a qualified master is extremely important. While training jin, the coordination of the sounds “hen” and “ha” become very important. Uttering “hen” and “ha” can enable you to emit or withdraw your jin to the maximum and coordinate the qi with it, and can also help to raise your spirit of vitality.
When you finish your analysis of the sequence, you have established the martial foundation of taijiquan. You should then start to train speeding up the solo sequence, training jin in every movement. In fast taiji training, practice emitting jin in pulses with a firm root, proper waist control, and qi support. In addition, develop the feeling of having an enemy in front of you while you are doing the form. This will help you learn to apply the techniques naturally and to react automatically. After practicing this for a few years, you should have grasped the basics of jin and should start advanced pushing hands and jin training.
Advanced (moving step) pushing hands will train you to step smoothly and correctly in coordination with your techniques and fighting strategy. This training builds the foundation of free-pushing hands and free fighting. Advanced jin training enables you to understand the higher level of jin application and covers the entire range of jin. During these two steps of training, you should continue your qi enhancement, expansion, and transportation training to strengthen the qi support of your jin. The martial applications of pushing hands should be analyzed and discussed. This is the bridge that connects the techniques learned in the sequence to the real applications. When you understand all the techniques thoroughly, you should then get involved in free-pushing hands and learn the two-person fighting set.
The Taiji Fighting Set was designed to train the use of techniques in a way that resembles real fighting. Proper footwork is very important. Once you are moving and interacting fluidly, you can begin to use jin. The final step in training is free fighting with different partners. The more partners you practice with, the more experience you will gain. The more time and energy you spend, the more skillful you will become.
The most important thing in all this training is your attitude. Remember to study widely, question humbly, investigate, discriminate, and work perseveringly. This is the way to success.