To successfully learn taijiquan (tai chi chuan), you will need to understand some of the principles and guidelines that have accumulated over the centuries by masters of this ancient art. These principles and guidelines are the foundation of taijiquan.
To achieve the maximum benefit from taijiquan practice, it is said that you should practice taijiquan twenty-four hours a day. This doesn't mean that you need to do the taijiquan sequence all the time, but you need to make taijiquan a way of life. The practice of taijiquan will not only provide a whole body workout, but it will also cultivate the energy within your body, increase your mental awareness and centering, and build good habits for proper body alignment.
When you have accomplished these goals in practice, you will automatically carry these good habits into your daily life. You will gain a greater awareness of yourself, keeping your physical body properly aligned while sitting, standing, driving, eating, watching TV, working, typing, brushing your teeth, and everything else you do regularly. This is what is meant by practicing taijiquan twenty-four hours a day and making taijiquan a way of life.
Guidelines for Body Movements
These guidelines are used for both performing taijiquan as a health exercise but also for martial arts.
- Head: Vitality of Spirit Leads to the Top of the Head (Xu Ling Ding Jin)
"Vitality of spirit leads to the top of the head" implies the energizing of your head by a slight lifted feeling. When your head is slightly lifted, it will be upright, with the neck relaxed, and you will appear to have a sense of vitality. With your head upright, it will be easier to keep your balance. To have a suspended feeling, imagine that the baihui cavity on top of your head is being suspended by a thread.
- Eyes: Eyes Focus with Concentration (Yan Shen Zhu Shi)
Your eyes are generally the first to move when you generate intent with your mind. When practicing taijiquan for health, your eyes correspond with the arm or leg performing the most important movement at the time. When your eyes are focused in the direction of your primary limb, you express the intent of the movement. This way your movements are alive, have a pleasing, artistic appeal, and express the vitality of your spirit.
On the other hand, the martial arts focus is quite different—it is primarily to show a sense of enemy and to raise the vitality of your spirit. In applying the posture as a martial technique, your eyes should focus in the direction of your opponent, not the movement of your limbs.
- Mouth: Tongue Gently Touches the Roof of the Mouth (She Qing Ding Shan Ge)
After a hard day, you may find yourself with your teeth clenched unintentionally. Any tension in the mouth can restrict your breathing. Pay attention to your jaw, making sure it is not tensed. During practice, keep your mouth closed, with your lips lightly touching each other. Then touch the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth. With your tongue touching the roof of your mouth, saliva will be generated. Your saliva is not only an excellent digestive juice, but it is also an excellent "moisturizer" and "coolant" for your body during taijiquan practice.
Energetically, your tongue connects the conception vessel and the governing vessel. The conception vessel has its primary energy path from your mouth down along the centerline of your throat, chest, and abdomen to your perineum area. The governing vessel has its primary energy path from your perineum up along the midline of your spine to your neck, and it loops over your head to your mouth. Your tongue serves as a bridge to connect the two vessels, providing a complete circuit for a smooth energy transition between the two vessels.
- Torso: Body Centered and Upright (Shen Ti Zhong Zheng)
Unnecessary tension in your muscles and joints is generated when your body leans or twists excessively. Over the years, certain work conditions may help develop habits that put your body under undue stress, due to improper alignment. All these misalignments need to be corrected before permanent damage occurs. This guideline sets the criteria for proper torso alignment. It allows the body to be relaxed, prevents undue tension, and improves smooth circulation for blood and qi.
The human spine has three natural curves: one at the cervical vertebrae, one at the thoracic vertebrae, and one at the lumbar vertebrae. Keeping the body centered and upright implies that the torso be naturally upright. It doesn't mean the spine should be completely straight, which in reality is not possible. To prevent your body from leaning, it is necessary to tuck your sacrum in slightly. By tucking in your sacrum, you can lessen the stress on your lower back and allow your waist to move more freely. The guideline, sacrum centered and upright (we ilu zhong zheng), is often used in conjunction with the guideline, body centered and upright. Of course, if your head is not upright, your torso will be affected. Therefore, the guideline, vitality of spirit leads to the top of the head, must also be followed to keep the body centered and upright.
- Chest and Back: Arc Your Chest and Round Your Back (Han Xiong Ba Bei)
With your chest naturally relaxed and arced in slightly, reducing the pressure on your lungs, you allow deeper and more relaxed breathing. The slight movements of your chest provide direct stimulation and exercise to your organs. It is like a gentle massage, loosening up whatever stagnation there may be in the fasciae layers surrounding your organs. The slight arcing of your chest makes the back slightly rounded with a slightly lifted feeling. When training taijiquan as a fighting art, the chest is arced in farther with the back more rounded. The reason for this is to create the potential for power release.
- Waist and Hips: Loosen Your Waist and Hips (Song Yao Song Kua)
The 206 bones in our bodies are "threaded" together for weight bearing and for a variety of movements. The waist, which connects your upper body and lower body, has a significant influence on the movements of the entire body. Through the connecting ligaments, once the waist moves, the other joints in the body are affected.
Located around your waist area are your dan tian and your kidneys. According to Chinese acupuncture, residing in the kidneys is one of the original essences (yuan jing). By exercising your waist, you will be stimulating the kidneys—keeping them healthy and functioning properly. It is said by the Chinese that with strong kidneys, your original essence will be sufficient, your qi will be abundant, your spirit will be clear, and your eyes will be bright.
From a martial arts standpoint, the waist is capable of increasing your power and the speed of your techniques. When your waist is loose, the power generated by your legs can easily be transmitted to your arms. Adding the power that can be generated by your waist, your martial potential will be highly improved. On the other hand, if your waist is stiff, then power from your legs will be restricted by your waist, lessening your power manifestation. According to taijiquan theory, the root is at your feet; power is generated by your legs and directed by your waist, and then expressed through your fingers. To adhere to this principle, your upper body must be upright and your stance must be comfortable.
- Arms and Shoulders: Sink the Shoulders and Drop the Elbows (Chen Jian Chui Zhou)
Sink the shoulders (chen jian) requires that the shoulder joints be loose. Let your arms hang down naturally. Drop the elbows (chui zhou) implies the lowering of your elbows. People involved in stress-related work often find themselves with their shoulders raised. When this happens, the lungs are constricted from the tension caused by the shoulders. This will restrict breathing and prevent the smooth circulation of blood and qi. Also, if the shoulders are not relaxed and the elbows are not dropped, it will make the guideline "arc your chest and round your back" impossible.
From a martial arts standpoint, drop the elbows is a protective strategy. If your shoulders are raised, your elbows will also be lifted. Also, when your elbows are too high, it will tense up your shoulders. When your shoulders are up, it is easier for your opponent to lift up your elbow, leaving the vital areas of your body exposed and vulnerable to an attack.
- Wrist and Hand: Extend the Fingers and Settle the Wrist (Zuo Wan Shen Zhi)
Extend the fingers and settle the wrist is a hand and wrist exercise. In settle the wrist, you are flexing your wrist by extending the base of your palm forward while leaving your fingertips suspended in place. Every time you settle your wrist and extend your fingers, the joints are being gently stretched and loosened. Energetically, the small motion of your wrist and hand helps bring your attention to your fingers, assisting your mind in leading the qi to your fingers.
From a martial arts standpoint, in a palm strike, the settling movement of your wrist increases the speed of your strike, which in turn increases the penetrating power of your strike. For example, if you were to throw a baseball at 50 mph, riding in the back of a pickup truck moving at 40 mph, neglecting air and all other resistance, the speed of the ball would be 90 mph (50 mph + 40 mph). This is the case with your arm thrusting forward (pickup speed) and settling your wrist (baseball speed) right before contacting your target.
- Legs: Distinguish Substantial and Insubstantial (Fen Qing Xu Shi)
Distinguish substantial and insubstantial is a guideline for the entire body. With regard to the leg movements, it is a guideline to achieve agility and smoothness in shifting weight from one leg to another. Substantial (shi) literally means "solid," implying firmness and stability, not rigidity. Insubstantial (xu) literally means "empty," implying the ability to change, not lifelessness.
Beginners often have the problem of falling into a stance, creating an abrupt change in movement and making balancing difficult. To prevent this from happening when stepping, do not step too wide or too far. Also, when your feet are too far apart, it will be very difficult for you to change stances. After touching down with your stepping foot, shift your weight forward gradually, paying attention to the weight transfer from the substantial leg to the insubstantial leg.
- Entire Body: Upper and Lower Body Follow Each Other (Shang Xia Xiang Sui)
This guideline stresses the importance of integrating the entire body for good rooting, balance, and centering. When one part of your body moves, all other parts also move, providing a total body exercise.
It is said in taijiquan that when there is an upward movement, then there is also a downward movement; when there is a forward movement, then there is also a backward movement; and when there is a left movement, then there is also a right movement. Energetically, your mind is aware of the movement of your entire body, balancing your body and qi in all directions, achieving total equilibrium of mind and body.
(The above excerpt is from Simplified Tai Chi Chuan 24 Postures with Applications and Standard 48 Postures by Liang, Shou-Yu and Wu, Wen-Ching.)