Having a Wonderful Time but Where am I?

by Christopher Pei


If you are going to travel to a new city, and all you know is your destination is westward, so you hop into your car and just start to drive toward the west. You probably will reach where you wanted to go with a lot of mistakes, and wasted time with the wrong roads. It is the same, if you study Tai Chi without a detailed road map. It will take you a lot longer to reach your goal. 

The traditional Yang Style Tai Chi originally evolved from the Chen Style Tai Chi. Every time a change is made to its original format, the new idea and frame will need to be tested in theory, its function and application to see if it is workable and useful. 

When the first generation of the Yang family - Yang Lu Chang changed the frame of the Chen Style Tai Chi, it was the beginning, the embryo of the Traditional Yang Style Tai Chi. It took the next two generations - his son, Yang Jian Hou, and his grandson, Yang Chen Fu, three generations of constant refinement to develop what we know today as the Traditional Yang Style Tai Chi. It was not until Yang Chen Fu was in his late 50's, that he said "This is it. There isn't anything else that I could refine on it. No changes should be made, because I couldn't improved on it any better. This is Traditional Yang Style Tai Chi." 

Nowadays, when we study Traditional Yang Style Tai Chi, we emulating the late Yang Chen Fu's frame. He has left photographs for us to compare. But not only our body frame has to look like his. The most important thing that he left for us is the road map of how to study of Traditional Yang Style Tai Chi, which we call the Ten Essences.

As I teach seminars all over different regions in the world, I have a wide range of students from beginners to experienced Tai Chi practitioners. When you have a mixed group of different levels of skilled students, the first thing for me as a teacher is to find out how much does each student understand Tai Chi. If you teach the same thing all the time in every seminar you are no longer teaching, you become an instructor. A good teacher understands what each student's level is and then teaches according to each student's need. 

It is very surprising to me, when I ask the students, "How many of you have heard of the Ten Essences?" Most of the students will raise their hands. Then I ask "How many of you can recite the Ten Essences?" Half of the students will drop their hands. Then I ask the remaining students to recite the Ten Essences. Everyone can recite 3 or 4 out of the Ten Essences without a problem, then it starts getting harder as someone calls out the remaining essences. Most of the time, no one can recite the Ten Essences without any hesitation. It took three life times of the Yang family members to come up with this detailed road map for our study of Tai Chi. Our mastery of the Traditional Yang Style Tai Chi depends on our understanding of the Ten Essences. 

Memorizing the Ten Essences is not a true understanding of Tai Chi. Memorizing the words doesn't mean you are able to transfer the feeling into your body when you practice the movements. If the feeling of the Ten Essences is not transferred into the body when you practice, then the Essences become a slogan. Slogans are useless in the study of Tai Chi.

Then how do we comprehend the Ten Essences? First, let us understand the principal of Yin and Yang. Energy is created when two opposite extreme forces either pull or push each other with balanced equal intensity. To simplify, drawing a bow to shoot an arrow is a good example of how the opposite forces pull against each other to create a controlled energy.

When Tai Chi was created, it wasn't created as a stress reduction, relaxation and meditation exercise. It was created as a martial art with the understanding of traditional Chinese medicine and the study of Yin and Yang. 

In ancient times, all battle was done one on one, man to man, hand to hand. The eye contact is your first clash with your opponent. How you stand, how you look, the appearance and the feeling that you project onto your opponent, will determine the opponent's action from that point. If you stand tall with the feeling of uprightness in the body with the projection of high spirit, you opponent will less likely to make a move towards you. You are using your spirit to overcome your opponent first. Raising your head to lift the spirit is the first essence of Tai Chi.

When a person has good spirit, you will see their head, neck and spine lined up in a upright position. When their back is hunched and head lowered, this is a sign of tiredness, distress or not feeling well. 

Earlier, we discussed Yin and Yang, the coexistence of opposite forces in harmony. Therefore, the feeling of lifting the head is needed to counter balance the feeling of sinking shoulders and lowering elbows. Sinking shoulders and lowering elbows is the second essence. The first and second essences balance each other. Without the second essence, the body will become too tense to practice. Sinking shoulders and lowering elbows will allow you to become softer. We want to stand upright and in a loose position. 

As your shoulders sink and elbows lower, you will feel your chest become loose and sink inward. When your chest is sunk inward, this will cause your back to be rounded, and the feeling of the muscles in your back expanded and stretched slightly. Loosen chest and round back is the third essence.

During your practice, if you feel your spirit is low and you need to raise your head, you should also feel your shoulders are sunk, elbows are lowered, chest loosened and back rounded. The feeling of all these body parts are connected as one unit. They are affecting each other just like the gears in an engine. 

If you try to recite these words in your mind or to speak out loud, your body movements will become too fast for you. Your mind and body are no longer in harmony. You should feel the essences. 

Breathing is controlled by your chest. If your shoulders are pulled backward, your chest will become tense, your breathing is restricted in your upper chest. When the first three essences are done correctly, you will find your breathing becomes longer and deeper. Your breathing is able to be lowered into your lower abdomen. This feeling of deep and relaxed breathing is called "Sinking Chi into Dantien."

The power of our body is never originated in the arms or legs. It is created by torque of the waist. Waist is a very misleading word in the study of Tai Chi. Most of the students will think waist is the muscles on both sides of the stomach. When we say waist, we mean the torso, the front and back of the body, the complete rounded body.

The issuing of energy, is called "Fa Jing". It is done by torquing the waist very explosively and quickly from one direction to the opposite direction, and then back to its original position. This quick torque produces an energy that shoots through the spine up into your shoulders, and then extends into your arms, and finally the energy is released through your hands. Loosening the muscles to allow the turning of the waist is the fourth essence.

In the example of drawing the bow to shoot an arrow, the power of the bow is not stored or created at the ends of the bow but rather in the middle of the bow. In the human body, the power is not in the hands and feet but in the middle of the body-the waist. 

Since we understand the power is created in the waist, we also need to understand that every time your waist is turned, your body weight is changed and your balance is affected. The legs are built to support our upper body. The feeling of a strong firmness in the legs is called "Rooting." Rooting is created by either pushing your legs against each other or pressing your legs down and away from each other. If you don't have this rooting feeling, your mind will not be in the legs. Paying attention to the weight changes in your legs will produce a strong rooting feeling. Tai Chi energy is very interesting. It is controlled by your thoughts, as long as you think about it or pay attention to how it feels, the energy is there and ready to be used at your command. If you don't think about it, then the energy is not focused. Energy without focus is never controlled and it is useless. The understanding of weight changes in the legs with the turning of the waist is the fifth essence - Separation of the substantial and insubstantial.

So every time your waist is turned, you should connect to and feel your waist and legs are moving together. Just turning your waist without feeling your legs will cause your rooting to be weak and you will lose your ability to use the torque energy effectively. 

If you understand what the first five essences are, you should be able to feel the upper body is governor by the first three essences and your lower body is controlled by the fourth and fifth essences. Upper body is the head, shoulders, elbows, chest and back. Lower body is the waist and legs. To connect the upper and lower body together in movements so the upper and lower bodies' energies are combined into one larger energy is the sixth essence - Coordinating the upper and lower body.

As soon as the upper and lower body energies are combined and coordinated into one energy, you will need to monitored it, so energy can be delivered continuously. This feeling of flowing energy moving smoothly without interruption in motions is called continuity. Your seventh essence.

In Tai Chi, every movement or motion has to have a purpose, a reason. Reasoning can only come from the understanding of the application. For example, the first move in Traditional Tai Chi is raising both hands in front of the body to shoulder height. Without understanding the application, students will only raise the hands. They feel relaxed but that is it. Understanding the application, students will be able to extend their energy into an opponent's body and disturb his balance. The opponent is then repelled backward without ever using any muscle power. By understanding this, then the body is connected with the mind. This aspect of Tai Chi study is very important. This is knowing the intent, what your mind is trying to achieve and what your body is capable of doing. Your intent and body frame have to be unified as one. If you have a good intent without a strong body frame, you will not accomplish what you want. The eighth essence - Coordinating your internal intent (mind) and your external physical frame (body). Sometimes, others refer to this essence as coordinating internal and external. 

The applications are executed in your mind. No punch or push is executed with tightness in the muscles. Tightness causes your movements to be more staggered, slower and to use more muscle power. Loose muscle is suddenly contracted into extreme tension and then loose again, creates a type of the energy that is more powerful than the tight muscle type. So when we practice Tai Chi, we use our mind not our physical force. Energy is used softly and gently. Using mind not using force is the ninth essence

Softness is also misunderstood by many people. If you are very soft, then you only practice one of the extremes of Yin and Yang. Softness doesn't mean relaxed soft. Softness means that your bone structure has been extended. The tendons are pulled to a point of being stretched and there is slight tension in then. The muscles are still soft. Both softness and tension are needed to create energy in the body.

Finally, in motion, you should feel peaceful. The feeling of peacefulness is like standing in a pool of water, moving so gracefully that you don't create any waves in the pool, because you move through it softly. This is called seeking stillness in motion. When standing still, you feel the inner body extending and expanding so energy is created, you are seeking motion in stillness. Your final, tenth essence - Seeking stillness in motion and motion in stillness, the Yin and Yang.

If you can reason out the ten essences, your training in the Traditional Yang Style Tai Chi will reach a new skill level. In the beginning, you might find it difficult. Reasoning out the Ten Essences is better than trying to memorizing them. Only by reasoning out the essences, will you understand how they feels. Following the feeling with the guidelines of the Ten Essences, your body will never move outside the corrected frame. Your form will look just like Yang Cheng Fu's photographs. You will find your energy comes up much easier and quicker. Then you will know you are on the right path.