Tai Chi and Chi Kung or Taiji and Qigong, they are the same words pronounced slightly different. These are foreign words to most Westerners although today they are gaining in popularity as more and more people begin to understand the health benefits of these ancient Chinese practices. These two arts are similar and usually practiced together. Both incorporate deep breathing exercises, relaxation, mental techniques and smooth flowing movements to achieve the desired goal whether it is building Chi/Qi (life energy) or overcoming the stressors of everyday life, preventing or battling illness, an opponent or mastering ones self. Tai Chi is a philosophy that dates back thousands of years, the name of the martial art that people practice is actually called Tai Chi Chuan and is based on that philosophy. Tai Chi Chuan translates to mean “Grand Ultimate fist” or “Great extremes boxing”.
Hundreds of years ago people discovered that Tai Chi Chuan was not only a very efficient means of defending oneself and others but it was a very healthy exercise. The techniques for building inner strength, skill, balance and martial expertise also promoted health, tranquility and mental clarity. Tai Chi became an Eastern treasure.
Before I explain Tai Chi we must explore the meaning of another word, Wuji. We can think of Wuji as the vastness of space before there were stars or planets. There would be no up and down, no left or right, there would be an “emptiness” that is somehow substantial, a void that is whole. Tai Chi or Taiji would occur when Wuji separates into distinct and opposite forces, like the Big Bang it is that from which everything else comes, the forces of Yin and Yang. So Tai Chi embodies Yin and Yang. Everything and its’ opposite is represented by this, male and female, good and evil, light and dark, open and closed, hard and soft etc. Within every thing in the Universe a little bit of its’ opposite exists. This is seen in the Yin Yang symbol. Within the dark portion or the Yin side, there is a white dot, a bit of Yang energy. Also within the Yang side, the white part, there is a black dot, a bit of Yin energy. So an example of this is that there does not exist good without bad, therefore within goodness there is a touch of bad and vice versa within the bad there is some good, meaning no one person is totally one or the other. At the far extreme of Yang is where Yin begins and at the far extreme of Yin, Yang begins. Like night and day, at the far extreme or end of day, night begins and at the end of night is day. Wuji becomes Taiji when forces move and separate and when they combine to form a whole, Taiji becomes Wuji.
Whew! What does that have to do with Tai Chi Chuan? This philosophy is the basis for movement in Tai Chi. Before we do our form we stand in Wuji posture, there is no left or right, no uneven positioning, we find our center of gravity. The spine is straight with the tailbone tucked under, the head is erect and suspended from the top, the chin is neither tucked nor jutting forward, the knees are slightly bent and the breathing is deep in the abdomen, what we call prenatal breathing. Although our body is straight it is not rigid but relaxed and the mind is clear and undivided, in a Wuji state. Then as we step out we pass from Wuji into Tai Chi (Taiji) our weight shifts from right to left, we move through postures that pass from open to close, our legs go from empty to full and continually switch. The full leg would have all the weight of the body supported upon it while the other leg is empty. We move from one extreme to the other, Yin and Yang. We do all this while maintaining the Tai Chi posture the legs are never totally straightened nor are the arms.The back is slightly rounded causing the chest to hollow inward. The arms, legs and chest in these positions are called the Five Bows. It is this structure that builds the Tai Chi body and allows us to express the eight energies of Tai Chi starting with the first, Peng or Ward Off. Although we are relaxed we express an outward energy that gives shape and form to our positions. (I will discuss the other seven energies of Tai chi in future)
Within the body there are three major energy centers talked about in Tai Chi. They are the lower, middle and upper Dan Tien. The lower DanTien is approximately two inches below the navel in the center of the body, middle Dan Tien is at heart level and the upper Dan Tien is located in the middle of forehead. Each has a different feel and function. I will discuss these in future blogs. The lower Dan Tien is important in the storing and releasing of Chi (life energy) and relates to physical movement. Chi can be cultivated during correct practice and can eventually be moved through the body at will for healing or martial purposes. All movements are generated by the lower Dan Tien, the legs and waist express the movements and direct them through the desired body part. Thus the parts of the body do not move independently but as a whole. (The hand does not move without the Dan Tien,waist, legs, mind…etc) This is why Tai Chi looks so graceful and coordinated but yet is so powerful. There are many levels of skill in Tai Chi and so many goals that one can strive to achieve. My Sifu would often say attaining any skill is like climbing a never ending ladder, you climb however high you want to go. My wish would be that everyone who learned tai Chi would take that ladder as far as they personally would like to go. Some people would only like to practice for health, some people to defend themselves, others may wish to become an unrivaled Master. All of these are very possible with practice and patience.