The Importance of Ding Shi Practice in Tai Chi Training

Jian Xiong

Ding Shi (holding postures) of Tai Chi form practice is virtually not known in the West. Let’s face it, it is extremely hard work and very time-consuming. There are 81 sequences in Wu –style Tai Chi which is composed of more than 300 postures/movements. In Ding Shi practice, one is required to hold each posture for 1-6 breaths. So, the complete set performed in this way can easily take 60 minutes minimum. But, due to the requirement for holding and accuracy in body alignment, the practitioner builds up awareness, stamina and power both internal and external, all of which are essential for advanced Tai Chi practice.

Speaking from my personal experiences, starting practicing Ding Shi with my teacher Li Lian in Beijing has totally transformed my experience of Tai Chi. Put it this way, I didn’t experience the real Tai Chi until I met my master and started Ding Shi practice. In my experience, the benefits of Ding Shi practice are many folds:-

1. Accuracy in body alignment – 3 internal alignments and 3 external alignments (Nei San He & Wai San He).
He (alignment) is a key concept in Tai Chi. Externally or physically, it means aligning different parts of the body to achieve ultimate stability of a posture. To break this down, alignment can be achieved by aligning the hands with feet, elbows with knees, and shoulders with hips. Since this principle works diagonally, we’re looking at alignment between the opposite hand and foot, elbow and knee, shoulder and hip. But He in Tai Chi practice doesn’t stop on the physical level. As the physical is always backed up by the intent and Jin (internal power) in Tai Chi, alignment is also sought on the internal level –between mind and intent (Xin and Yi), intent and Chi (Yi and Qi), Chi and power (Qi and Li). In Ding Shi practice, the practitioner holds each posture for a length of time before he moves into the next. This gives him the chance to relax into each posture and to make adjustments to his body alignment to achieve the 3 external alignments. With persistent practice over a length of time, he will be able to direct his intent with his mind, his Chi with his intent and his Jin or Tai Chi power with his Chi thus achieving the 3 internal alignments. With any Tai Chi practice, regardless of the particular school or style of the practitioner, the mere form or push-hands without in-depth content would only result an empty frame devoid of the depth and true essence of Tai Chi.

2. Relaxation and resilience supported by Tai Chi Jin
It’s a common notion especially in the West that Tai Chi is all soft, gentle and slow in pace. This, I’m afraid, is a deluded notion. Tai Chi is NOT all soft, all gentle and always slow. Tai Chi is Yin and Yang, the constant interplay between the opposites – harshness and gentleness, void and substantial, contraction and expansion. I personally feel the word ‘softness’ should be banished from the Tai Chi vocabulary altogether because it is misleading. Such a misunderstanding may be caused by the wrong interpretation of the Chinese word ‘Rou’ which means ‘resilient’ or ‘elastic’ rather than ‘soft’ which implies floppiness or weakness. The difference between Rou (resilience) and Ruan (softness) is rather significant – the former is like a coiled spring or stretched elastic band which has the potential to bounce back with full force while the latter is like soggy noodles which has no power, no potential apart from being consumed. To use another example, water in itself is soft but large volume of water can produce waves powerful enough to destroy any thing on land. So, the apparent softness in Tai Chi is deceptive; there can be tremendous power hidden behind the ‘soft’ and gentle facade. For this reason, Tai Chi is also nicknamed ‘the art of concealing needles inside cotton-wool’.
But this kind of elasticity in Tai Chi cannot be cultivated through tensing up the muscles as in weight training or learning a few applications. It can only be acquired through cultivating the Qi power and reconditioning the body to move in connection with intent and Qi flow. Any force or power delivered in this manner is called Tai Chi Jin which is a trained force or re-conditioned force that has transcended the limit of physical force of the person applying it. In other words, the power and strength delivered by using Tai Chi Jin does not depend on how physically big and strong the person is. Neither does it depend on the age of the person. Some Tai Chi masters such as the late Ma Yue Liang and Wu Tu Nan in China remain powerful in their eighties or even nineties.
Ding Shi is an excellent way of training to help the practitioner with developing such resilience, elasticity, stamina, the Qi flow – all the elements required for cultivating the Tai Chi Jin.

3. Grounding through directing the awareness to the Bubbling Spring (Yi Luo Rong Quan)
Tai Chi is involves a whole set of psychology of its own kind. One most commonly used principle is to ‘guide the intent with the mind’ (Yi Xin Xing Yi) and ‘direct the Qi flow with the intent’ (Yi Yi Ling Qi). In holding the postures in Ding Shi practice, the practitioner is constantly directing his mind/intent into his Bubbling Spring on the soles of his feet which deeply connects him with the earth energy thus making him firmly grounded at all times. Such grounding is essential for all aspects of Tai Chi practice be it forms, standing, push hands or weapon form practice. Grounding to Tai Chi practitioner is like growing roots for trees; the deeper the roots grow into the ground, the better chance the tree will prosper. Holding each posture in Ding Shi provides the practitioner with excellent opportunity to concentrate on grounding. To be more specific, he mentally connects his Jian Jing Xue (the ‘Shoulders Well’ Pressure Point) on his shoulders with his Bubbling Spring on the soles of his feet thus linking his entire Qi Chang (field of Chi) with the earth energy. In this way he makes sure he is grounded and centred at all times.

4. Qi Chang (field of Chi) and six-dimensional expansion
Qi Chang refers to the field of energy accumulated within the body through Qi Gong or other practice. The strength of such field depends on the depth of the practitioner’s practice. Ding Shi is a good way of accumulating Chi and thus increasing the strength of one’s Qi Chang. In holding the postures, the practitioner is constantly extending his awareness and thus expanding his energy field to six dimensions – to the front, to the back, to the left and to the right, upward and downward. With persistent practice, his Qi strength will grow tremendously and his awareness sharpened. This process works like storing water into a reservoir or charging the battery; the more you have in reserve, the more power you can issue when you need it.

5. Change of breathing mode
Though natural and smooth breathing is recommended for Ding Shi practice, when the practice deepens, the practitioner will experience a subtle change in his breathing mode. Physical lung breathing subsides to give way to alternative modes of breathing – foetus breathing (Tai Xi) and pore breathing. Foetus breathing is also called ‘Dan Tian breathing’. Dan Tian is the peal of Qi located about 2 inches below the naval. It is developed by consciously diverting one’s Qi into the lower tummy region. The most efficient way of developing Dan Tian is Zhan Zhuang, or standing postures. This is a slow and long process. My teacher, Master Li Lian, always says that to get the full benefit of the exercise, a minimum of 40 minutes for each standing session is required on a daily basis. Practicing Ding Shi will certainly facilitate such a process because holding the posture allows the practitioner to consciously sink his Qi down to Dan Tian (Qi Chen Dan Tian in Chinese). This is something which is very difficult to achieve if one practices forms at regular speed only.
Pore breathing is the ability of the body to breathe through opening up the pores in the skin. But in advanced level of Tai Chi practice, this ability is taken one step further to allow the practitioner to exchange his Qi with the external environment through some pressure points such as the Yong Quan (Bubbling Spring) on the soles of the feet and the Lao Gong at the centre of the palms. Again, this ability is unlikely to be achieved through regular form practice alone. In Wu Tu Nan Tai Chi tradition which especially values the Nei Gong (internal technique), this is achieved by practicing Tai Chi Gong, a sequence of standing postures, and Ding Shi.

6. Expansion and contraction (Kai and He)
Expansion and contraction or opening and closing in Tai Chi do not happen on physical level alone. An advanced practitioner can expand and contract his intent and Qi with will. Thus when he comes into contact with his opponent, he has the capacity to control the other not only through physical contact, but through connecting his energy field with that of the opponent. This is definitely not mythical nonsense. I have witnessed and experienced this myself with some Tai Chi masters back in Beijing. Force issued through physical means such as delivered by a punch or kick is always limited in strength and speed. But force has other ways of being issued, and in the case of an advanced Tai Chi practitioner, it is issued through intent and Qi. One possible scientific explanation for this is the theory of electro-magnetic field which has been developed in the Tai Chi masters. The velocity and speed of force delivered from such electro-magnetic field is not limited by the physical strength and speed of the limb movements of the person applying them. It doesn’t depend on the thinking process either. If one can understand and accept this, one wouldn’t put down the power demonstrated by Tai Chi grandmasters shown during push-hands contact as mere ‘mythical nonsense’ (a comment quoted from YouTube).
Mythical or not, such extraordinary power does exist and there are actually practical means to cultivate and achieve such power, and Ding Shi practice in Wu Tu Nan Tai Chi has been proved to be one of such means.