There is no shortage of advice for a student of tai chi: countless videos on Youtube, and thousands of titles on Amazon Books. Amidst all this information, it may be useful to have a more condensed list of key principles. So in that spirit, here is a brief guide, from the tradition of Cheng Man-ching. Wolfe Lowenthal My teacher Wolfe Lowenthal, direct student of Cheng Man-ching, recently published a ‘little list of an approach to Tai chi study’ in his online journal ‘Tai chi Thoughts’:
‘Put the chi in the tan-tien.
Suspend the head top, root the feet.
“Study the form, it has meaning” (Cheng Man-ching) – referring particularly to the push hands form.
Follow the Tai chi Classic, including Professor Cheng’s contribution.
In Push Hands: stick and listen to reach understanding.
“From familiarity with the correct touch, one comes to comprehend the internal strength. From the comprehension of the internal strength, one achieves wisdom” (Tai Chi Classics).
Relax and be soft.
“Invest in loss” (Cheng Man-ching). Don’t diverge from principle, and resort to the use of resistance or hard muscular strength to win.
Put the chi in the tan-tien.’
Wolfe added: ‘Be sure to stay relaxed about the whole thing.’ Ben Lo Ben Lo, one of Cheng Man-ching’s first students, has his own list of ‘five principles’ (listed by Wu Wei Taichi).
Relax: Ben Lo explains ‘People always say to me, “You always emphasize relaxation. But how do I do it?” I say, “Do the form.”That’s the only way.’
Separate Yin from Yang: Ben Lo: ‘Yin and Yang are Chinese words and have the meaning insubstantial and substantial. Sometimes in ordinary talk about Tai Chi Ch’uan we discuss separating the weight. But that is not exactly right…I can put my weight on one leg and the other leg has no weight. But in the meantime, the other leg can be stiff, too. The Yin has to be soft and have no weight. Soft and relaxed… Even the Yang leg has to be relaxed.’
Turn the waist: Meaning turn the hips, not losing nose/navel alignment.
Keep the body upright.
Maintain Fair Lady’s hand.
Ben Lo notes: ‘Of the five principles, the first one, relaxation, is the most difficult… [maintaining all five principles] is a lifetime challenge. We just keep doing and doing. Just the basic things.’
Scott Meredith’s list of principles In his book, ‘Tai Chi Peng: Root Power Rising’, Scott Meredith, a student of Ben Lo, lists some key practice principles. He says ‘The prime pre-requisite is the removal of tension’.
Upright relaxed body – keeping our mind aware and alert while removing any unnecessary tension.
Sink shoulders and elbows.
Straighten lower back – the lower back should be hanging straight down…
Maintain Fair Lady’s Hand.
Distinguish substantial/insubstantial – ‘In every pose, a stronger, fully supporting leg, called substantial, will always be differentiated from a weaker or insubstantial leg.’
Extend consciousness – extend your mind, your awareness into the whole of your body including your limbs, fingers, toes etc.
Scott Meredith: Peng Jin One of the effects of correct tai chi practice is the development of a loose, relaxed body, with the energy sunk to the tan-tien and the lower half of the body. Over time, with practice, this gives rise to ‘peng’ energy. Scott Meredith, in his book ‘Tai Chi Peng: Root Power Rising’ discusses a particular form of energy (peng jin) that tai chi practice can develop. He asks the question: ‘What is PENG?’ and answers that it: ‘refers to a wave of fluid energy you’ll feel flowing up from your feet and suffusing your entire body, when you practice Tai Chi correctly.’ He quotes Chen Weiming, a student of Yang Cheng-fu, who explains that Peng energy has a protective quality: ‘When you’re loose and relaxed, even when not alert, the energy is still there and it spreads everywhere.’ Meredith quotes from ‘the Song of Peng’ (a classic text): ‘How can peng energy be explained? It’s like the swelling water that lifts a boat. First, fill the dantian with qi, then, hold the head in light suspension. A tensile, elastic power suffuses the entire body, oscillating at a fixed frequency. Even a thousand pounds of force… will be easily repelled.’
Additional points As you can see there is overlap between the different lists above. To the above I would just add a few points.
When practising form move slowly, continuously, at a consistent pace, as if drawing silk from a cocoon. If you have little breaks in the continuity of the form or speed up and slow down, the silk filament will break.
If you can keep your mind on what you are doing when you practise tai chi, and gently return it to your practice every time it wanders off, you will develop mindfulness. Your tai chi will become meditation.
The practice of holding postures is a useful adjunct to form practice. Ben Lo is the chief exponent of this approach in the Cheng Man-ching tradition. Take one or two postures from the form and hold them, mind in the tan-tien, while maintaining relaxation, alignment and the postural principles.
Try practising form as if you are swimming in the air, against the imagined resistance of water. ‘When you execute each movement , you feel your motion as if you were swimming… How does a beginner start to practice this? You must wave the arm and let the palm move against the wind, feeling the air as if it were water.’ (Cheng Man-ching, 1985).
Enjoy your practice. Tai chi is about relaxing into the present moment, the process, rather than straining to reach an imagined, distant future goal. In every moment of tai chi we aim to be in balance, weight falling through the yongquan point in the centre of the feet, head suspended from above – giving rise to a sense of peace and joy.
References Benjamin Pang Jen Lo, Martin Inn, Robert Amacker, Susan Foe (translators) (2008) ‘The Essence of T’ai Chi Ch’uan: The Literary Tradition’, IRI Press, San Francisco, California. Benjamin Pang Jen Lo and Robert W. Smith (translators), Chen Wei Ming (1985) ‘T’ai Chi Ch’uan Ta Wen: Questions and Answers on T’ai Chi Ch’uan’, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California. Benjamin Pang Jen Lo, David Chen’s website, www.wuweitaichi.com Cheng Man-ching (1985) ‘Cheng Tzu’s Thirteen Treatises on T’ai Chi Ch’uan’, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California. Lowenthal, Wolfe. (December 2016) Tai Chi Thoughts Internet Journal. Meredith, Scott (2014) ‘Tai Chi Peng: Root Power Rising’.