Tai Chi Chuan Magazine

Issue No 6

Essentials in the Practice of Taijiquan

Michael Acton

Throughout the year I spent studying taiji and qigong with Li Li-Qun in Shanghai, I would cycle to the park where he practised early, every morning regardless of the summer heat, rain, fog and, in the winter, snow. As a reslut of my regularity I became a familiar face. Many of the early risers came to recognise me and we would exhange greetings and know that tomorrow we would see each other again at the same time and at the same place. Week after week, month after month, through the full turning of the seasons I saw the same people in the same place, in that particular park doing their morning exercises. When I return to visit my teacher I expect to see the same faces again, since they will have been practising in that park for many years and will continue to do so until they are too old to make it there each morning. The same scenario can be seen in any Chinese city between the hours of 5 oclock and 8 oclock. Daily practice for these people is as natural as drinking tea or eating rice. I came to really admire their relaxed tenacity and perseverance.

One day I mentioned to Mr Li that perseverance seemed to be a quality that was highly regarded in China. Perseverance was somehow an end to itself and not merely an often tortuous means to an end. Mr Li was pleased that I had noticed this and proceeded to quote his master, the famous 96 year old Wu style boxer, Ma Yeuh Liang, whose maxim for the practice of taijiquan rest upon the foundation of perseverance. Mr Mas 5 character maxim is perseverance, exactness, slowness, lightness and stillness. Such proverbial statements are an important aspect to the master disciple relationship, so much of which is based on oral transmission. It is often espoused that improvement will naturally follow perseverance and one should not concern oneself with speedy results or high achievment, since to do so would be to try to arrive before really beginning. Mr Li said that perseverance was very necessary in the study of taijiquan because the effects and skills were cumulative, acquired over long and sustained practice. The health beneŽts and martial skills do not suddenly appear, they dawn slowly since they are born out of a total body awareness. No true understanding or skill could be arrived at without perseverance in practice.

However, although the Žve character maxim takes perseverance as a prerequisite of the other four, it must be recognised that all of them are mutually contributive and no one should be seen in isolation from the rest. Mr Li pointed out that perseverance in wrong practice, for example would be to miss the target completely, which of course is why correctness or exactness in practice is important. Movements that are not precisely formed, according to the principles, do not constitute Taijiquan. Exactness of form requires body alignment in all postures, it requires correctness in transition from one form to another and precision in directions and angles. Exactness also requires a quality of concentration to instigate and monitor proper practice. The exactness required in Taiji often discourages students since, sometimes their preconception of what Taiji is does not generally include the idea of abiding by strict principles. The requirement of exactness is not just pedantic but is a critical aspect for cultivating the conditions for the health and martial beneŽts.

To cultivate exactness or correctness of form, Taiji is practised slowly. It is the characteristic of slowness that most people identify with Taijiquan and it is this most overt of characteristics that has given rise to one of the great misunderstandings about Taiji; that it is an effortless and rather unstructured dance, rather than a martial art. It should be remembered that although slowness is an important characteristic of the Big Slow Form it is not a requirement of the Fast Form, (the Fast Form is not the slow form done quickly, but is a from that predates the slow form as we know it today. It also retains all the martial characteristics of attack, stamping, jumping, high kicks and changes in speed.) nor is it the rule in pushing hands. Slowness in practice is beneŽcial to both the health and martial aspects of Taijiquan. The slow and continuous movements of Taiji gently stimulates the metabolism without unduly stressing it. This, in turn, gradually warms the whole body, permitting the blood and Qi to ßow unhindered by excessively stressed musculature or locked joints. Slowness of movement allows the whole body to be consciously relaxed and the breath regulated in accordance with the body actions. Slowness allows the discernment of void and solid, opening and closing, sinking and rising, contracting and expanding and the reŽnement of the circles of movement; indeed all aspects that characterise Taiji as an internal art. In pushing hands slowness is used to practice techniques and all the skills are to be of practical use. To practice the form slowly is a rigerous discipline requiring a high degree of physical and mental control.

The next critical ingredient in the 5 character maxim is lightness, This is not to be confused with ßoating which is an error. Lightness is the result of relaxed movement, devoid of all unnecessary tensions. In Taiji lightness can mean looseness, which is not the looseness of excessive mobility but rather a loosness which retains no stiffness. To achieve this the head must feel as if sinking downwards. The back must feel open and loose as should the waist. Lightness also means that the body must feel sensitive and free to move in any direction whilst at the same time feeling well rooted in the legs and feet, so that even a slight pressure will cause the body to respond. Lightness brings continuity of movement and agility and it is as much a state of mind as it is a physical sensation. Indeed to hold the idea of lightness in your mind during practice will encourage the physical reality.

Finally, without calmness. perseverance, exactness, slowness and lightness would have little value. Taiji after all is about the mind leading the body. The mind must be stilled and all distracting thoughts blocked out. It is the quality of calmness that allows the breath to become deep and even. It is calmness that permits the correct level of relaxation. The calm mind is an essential aspect of Taiji, giving it its meditative quality. Since the calm mind is not confused it informs the movements with clarity, precision and intent. Internal stillness or calmness is palpable and should attend all form and pushing hands practice. Mr Li constantly reminded me that from stillness comes movement and unity. He said that a signiŽcant fault that persists with many practitioners, even after many years, and hampers their progress is the inability to calm the mind. We all have a mental addiction to distracting thoughts and external stimulous. Stillness does not mean that you become totally unaware of what is going on around you, indeed your awareness should be heightened, but it means that you should not be captured by it. Mr Li advised that excessive distracting mental activity depleted the Three Treasures (Chi, Jing and Shen) that Taiji and Qigong seek to restore and cultivate. The seven emotions of joy, anger, sadness, pensiveness and fear) are all capable of affecting health and learning. Calmness is a technique to minimalise their damage. Mr Li said that through regular practice the level of calmness would deepen would deepen allowing the mind to be eventually stilled and the mind intent that is associated with Taiji to emerge.

Although Mr Li regularly referred to all aspects of Grand Master Mas 5 character maxim, he also added a postscript of his own and that was belief. This, he said, was most pertinant to the foreign student of Taiji, since chinese were brought up to believe in its efŽcacy and power. Mr Li said that many westerners seemed to Žnd it hard to give up the idea of pure physical strength and the muscle bound torso. He said that the idea of investment in lossso often mentioned on the learning curve of Taiji was particularly alien to westerners who generally could not trust the idea to gain internal strength one had to relinquish the idea of external strength. The westerner was more competition oriented and needed the objectives of goals that were tangible and identiŽable. He lacked the patience to cultivate health and skills through a regular practice of an art whose beneŽts seemed abstract and unquantiŽable. In defence of my culture, I am reminded him that many young Chinese of the new entrepreneurial economic climate in China exhibited those very characteristics, to which he readily agreed. Nevertheless, living in China allowed me to see Taiji in its cultural and philisophical context and this is a help in its study. There is a ßavour to goodTaiji and being exposed to it on a daily basis, in the land of its origin, somehow soaks into ones own practice and informs it in a creative and positive way. Taijiquan in China has an enduring and substantial quality to it that is born out of its greater cultural relevance and a total belief in its power and beneŽts.

In writing this article about the 5 important ingredients in the practice of Taiji, as recommended by Ma Yeuh-Liang, and of course the pertinant addition by Mr Li, I am reminded of a visit to Zhong Shan park with my teacher, in which I inadvertantly and purely by virtue of my closeness to Mr Li, took part in a cultural event and witnessed an extraordinary demonstration of form and pushing hands and also learned something about the atatus and belief of the common person in Taijiquan.

Zhong Shan park is a large park in western Shanghai which is quite far from the park of my regular morning practice. It is a wonderful place to visit in the early morning to visit since the visitor can see all types of morning activity ranging from the practice of bringing caged song birds to the parks in th moring, to appreciate their vocal antics, to practicing opera, or just simply drinking tea and chatting with friends. Every level and type of Taiji can be see and Qigong in all its strangeness; from the simple and the sublime to the ridiculous. The occasion that took Mr Li and some of his students, plus myself, there on that early morning was a demonstration that the Jian Chuan Taiji Boxing Association was giving and which was being Žlmed by Shanghai television. As General Secretary of the Jian Chuan Taiji Boxing Association, Mr Li was not only compering the event but was also, along with his students, me included, demonstrating. The whole event was presided over by masters Ma Yeuh Liang and his wife, now sadly deceased, Wu Ying Hua, daughter of the founder of the Wu style,as we know it today, Wu Jian Chuan,

There was a considerable crowd of all ages and most people in the vicinity stopped their own activity to come and watch and some to participate. The demonstration consisted of forms and pushing hands. This included demonstrations by Mr Mas senior disciples all of whom, Mr Li included, are well into their 70s, or much older. The displays were incredibly impressive in a non overt way and the pushing hands was extraordinary, indeed, at times it was barely believable since opponents from the audience freely engaged the individual demonstrator but with barely any movement they were thrown considerable distances or just simply fell over. Like the audience I was totally engrossed and thrilled to be witness to such a display. However, the Žnal display was by far the most masterly, when Mr Ma took up position. News had travelled all over the park and people were rushing to crowd around mr Ma. He engaged with several people who came forward from the audience, but few lasted even the Žrst touch. Some, indeed, did not even make contact before theu stumbled. These results were remarkable and evidently the crowd also thought so. The calm demeanour and clearly evident mental focus, never once taking his eyes off the opponent gave me a clear example of the manner and characteristics that accompany the highest levels of Taijiquan. Mr Ma moved with minimal appropriacy and I contemplated the perseverance required to arrive at this level of skill. Mr Ma had been practicing and teaching daily for more than 70 years and the subtle skills and the evident understanding of his opponents intentions, even as they arose, allowed him to manipulate the opponents mind and body with ease. After the demonstration the crowd ran to Mr Ma to touch him or to be near him. he was a living embodiment of a living culture and being close to a lmaster whose longevity and mastery would somehow, by osmosis, confer on them and their children, good luck and health.

The next day, I visited Mr Li at our usual spot. On my route along the old canal, people were taking their morning exercise. I told Mr Li that it had been a wonderful demonstration of the martial skills of Taiji, unlike anything I had ever seen. Mr Li reminded me taht there was no mystery to any of it, and at the heart of it all lay perseverance in correct practice, abiding by the maxim that Mr Ma had formulated after so many years of teaching and study. As a humble student, I dared to add that a good teacher also helped, at which he laughed and called his students together for the Big Slow Form practice. It was enough of talking, he said, and time to practice.

Michael Acton teaches the Wu style as practiced in Shanghai, at Couch Hill Recreation Centre and at the Laboratory Health Club in Muswellhill.
He can be contacted on 0171 263 8476.

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