Taiji Quan - the Holistic Art
by Jaleen Ho
What makes you continue practising Taiji Quan without fail?
I think most practitioners today likely practise Taiji Quan because of its health benefits. I am not exceptional as I am one with problems of rapid heart palpitations and frequent spine misalignment which cause numbness. I have consulted SGH specialists who recommended surgery for cervical spine and medication of atenolol to treat my heart palpitations. I was advised against both by Shifu as they has side effects. As I am not in good state of health when I started learning Taiji Quan therefore I need to wear a device to monitor my pulse rate. My normal pulse rate is about 100 and when I do the warm-up exercises, the reading normally shoots beyond 150. Consulting a TCM Orthopedist for alignment and putting faith in Taiji quan, known to have the power to improve and rejuvenate a person's general state of health have proved that I have made the correct decision. Under the guidance of Shifu and through diligent practice and correct diet over the years, I am free from the torture now. The role of Taiji Quan in this is indisputable.
I know there is no shortcut to master Taiji Quan and constant corrections, sometimes injuries or even qi stagnation do occur therefore I need to be courageous to make, accept and learn from mistakes to continue the pursuit of Taiji Quan. As an example, I feel pain at wrist area when doing danbian (单鞭) and through repeated practices and varying my posture (static and motion), I realized that it's because wrist is collapsing thus qi is blocked and cannot be directed to palm/fingers. Shifu noted that I am very sensitive to qi and that's a good way to check that every movement adheres to theories. A practitioner must understand that Taiji Quan is not a physical exercise of moving hands and legs or imitating the teacher's action...any task is not a series of unconnected components, but one seamless flow from intention to a single action performed by the whole body. The practice is centred on the forms which involve alignment, integration, coordination, unity and all movements done without tension(tension obstructs flow of qi)combined with breathing and meditation. I continued practice adhering to certain theories of movement, intention, meditation and particular breathing and can feel qi being generated and circulated throughout body. This has rewarded me with a more solid and stable lower body, stronger muscles, tendons and ligaments. The internal organs of the body are also strengthened as a result of improved qi and blood circulation and thus saving on medical fees.
As Taiji Quan is deeply rooted in the martial arts heritage therefore one cannot concentrate only on spiritual/qi as spiritual without martial art training is essence without application. Both the external martial form training and the training on breathing, meditation, spiritual growth are also essential.. A strong mind is needed to be able to stay focused and mind power (intention 意念) is used when executing the form. Intention comes before action. The external martial form training must be accompanied by internal power, which consists of spirit, intent and qi and this physical/mental connection must continue in the form practice. As an example, when practising 按 push, imagine pushing an opponent without force, the need to calm the mind, relax the body, concentrate to develop the energy from the feet, through the legs, kua/waist then the arms and finally to the hands. Practising one form many times and persisting in such concentration, I can feel heat travelling up from feet to body and finally to palms/fingers. The slow motion form together with suitable breathing rhythm, intention, is a form of qi exercise which enhance our intrinsic power. The sensation can only be experienced and is indescribable. Shifu is satisfied that I am onto a fruitful way of practice but will still need to continue with many hours of practice, experiments to reach another level. Like the Chinese saying...师父引进门，修行在个人 (Master brings you in from the doorway, the eventual performance, however, depends on the individuals). Besides diligent practice, teaching, sharing and reading will lead one to have better understanding of the principles and if applied to the practices, one's Taiji Quan will get better and better as one continues to refine it so as to be able to reap the countless benefits. This is why I see no reason that I should stop my practice.
We know that in order to become a real Taiji Quan martial artist, one has to undergo a series of hard training so that his body condition is fit enough to learn and apply the techniques. This is a really difficult task and it requires a practitioner to invest significant time and effort. Try practising the form 3 times, one to warm up, 2nd to get structure and posture correct and then another to incorporate intention. Training the mind to be able to eliminate distractions to attain a calm mind is no easy task. A calm, concentrated, clear mind is very important, meaning mentally letting go... frustrations, stress, and other distractions need to be released or ignored as the mind tends to be very busy, so it often becomes blocked and qi stagnation can happened. I have experienced qi stucked on head when I lose focus. A state of relaxed alertness must be maintained at all times when practising and when the concepts are grasped, it will lead one to perform the Taiji Quan solo form better and get more health benefits.
How can being soft and relaxed result in the great strength and force shown by Taiji Quan masters? Tuishou skills which include listening, sticking, adhering, following and connecting without resisting, giving up oneself and following the opponent, borrowing power from the opponent, using of proper body posture, body moving as a whole unit etc. If the practitioner has not grasp these basic foundations, it will be full of hand movement and external force thus accident will happen but when one is able to grasp and understand the concepts of relaxation, lightness, roundness and agility, body moving as a whole unit, one's movement will be very smooth and relaxed and able to overcome hardness with softness(以柔克刚). Whoever is stiff and inflexible will be overcome by whoever is soft and yielding. Soft like water and opponent will not be able to feel where your force is coming from. Taiji Quan is like water, so soft and yet can penetrate mountains and earth. When one has mastered Taiji Quan, it can be developed into an effective system of self-defence that does not rely on size or strength. This, I think is the accomplishment of Taiji Quan masters and would take a practitioner many many years of training to reach that.
What have you learn from Taiji Quan and how can you apply the knowledge into your life?
As I progress to more in depth training, the process of mediation, form practice, and push hands (although not much physical training) has assisted me to understand that Taiji Quan works on the principles of water, that of flowing with no resistance, it will redirect and moves on when it meets with obstacles. Incorporating its principles into my life has also nurtured my inner character and have better understanding towards opinions and positions of others which has in turn given me a more tolerant and compassionate demeanor compared to the impulsive and emotional me which I used to be. When negative energy been directed at me either directly or indirectly, I would normally react very fast with negative energy and was not able to make a choice about the best action I should take. As years go by, the knowledge of Taiji Quan has also given me practical methods to work with day-to-day situations learning to flow and move with energy so I slowly learn to choose how to best use my energy. The theories/philosophies not only help in my pursuit of Taiji Quan but has further enlightened me that it is an art that engages body, mind and spirit, an art for self-cultivation (修身养性) but sad to say that it is always overlooked by many practitioners. Practitioners who understand the essence/spirit of Taiji Quan should also cultivate themselves with it as it is the shortcut for achieving mental health, social adaptability and moral health. Few martial arts do this. In short, my aim of practising Taiji Quan is for me to be better than what I was the day before as it is holistic and cultivates the entire self.
I hope to be able to seek emptiness and serenity with my practice as that is the nature of Taiji Quan which cultivates inner peace and qi. I hereby wish that all Taiji Quan practitioners will have a peaceful, relaxed, harmonious and free mind and body and also to be able to free all blocked pathways and allow Qi to flow throughout the body more effectively. I believe diligent practice will lead to another level of understanding and enlightenment to help develop the trinity of yi, qi and jing (意，气，劲) and may even use Taiji Quan as a system of self defence.
I would like to take this opportunity to show my grateful respect to Shifu for his passionate and selfless guidance cause without it, I I don't think I am able to go this far in my pursuit of Taiji Quan. Thank you Shifu for being my mentor, not only in Taiji Quan but also in life. 谢谢您，师父.