The Five Levels of Training in Taijiquan
By Christopher Pei
As a student of Taijiquan, you are probably familiar with the Ten Essences, or guiding principles, of this martial art. You may be less familiar with Taijiquan's five levels of attainment, or skill levels. You cannot successfully practice the Ten Essences without knowledge of the five skill levels, or without understanding the level that you have reached. Knowing what the skill levels are helps to guide your training. Below, I describe the five levels with the hope that you will better understand where you are in your taijiquan journey. After reading this article, I want you to ask yourself: Where do I want to go from here? Has my original goal for practicing Taijiquan changed? For many, the original purpose in taking up this particular martial art was to reduce stress and to relax. I would think that for many of you that goal has already been reached. So, where do you want to go from here? What do you want to achieve, and how far do you wish to go? In training, the five skill levels each represent a different stage of growth. Every person going through these levels will experience them in a time frame different than anyone else's. There is, of course, no schedule to keep, no rendezvous by a certain time. The rate of progress is totally dependent on the understanding of the individual. Before discussing the first level, there is basic premise of Taijiquan that needs to be understood: It is the study of an energy called Qi. Every physical expression is the result of intent. Intent, determined by your mind, directs the Qi, and the Qi moves the body. It is always this way. For every external movement, something internal has preceded it.
The first level of Taijiquan training deals with the physical-the body's movements. You learn the path the body takes as it moves through a Taijiquan form and as it changes from one form to another. It is important at this level to learn how to position the body correctly. This is best done with the help of a qualified teacher. If you do not position the body correctly, the second skill level will be difficult to achieve. During the first level of Taijiquan, you are learning to make the body frames correctly and studying the body's path, for example, where your hands are positioned; where your feet are planted; how you transition from one frame to another; and how all body parts move from one frame to the next. As you invest more time in your practice, you become more comfortable with the movements; the mind is less concerned with trying to remember the next move. Your awareness changes, and you begin to establish within your body and your mind a sort of looseness, a relaxed feeling as you practice. When you have reached this stage, you will have moved on to the second level of skill training: making your Qi flow.
Several elements are required to generate the flow of Qi. The body needs to be positioned correctly and the mind needs to be focused. Most importantly, your hands and feet need to feel alive. This means that the energy gates in your hands and feet are open and the Qi channels throughout your body are open. At the second skill level, because your movements are correct, and you no longer have to think about them, your thoughts and awareness turn to how Qi is flowing in your body. At this level, you are beginning to move from a physical frame to one that is more mental. You begin to coordinate movements with your breathing. However, to train properly at this level, it is important to be shown when during the form to inhale and when to exhale; otherwise, you could be stuck at this level for a very long time. You need to know which part of the form is a Yin energy and which is Yang. This phase of your training is a very difficult and complex one, requiring you to understand the movements more deeply and the Yin and Yang energies within each movement. Yin movements are loose and store energy and Yang movements release the energy. In the beginning, if you can coordinate the Yang energy with your exhale, and still breathe naturally (not forced), it will help you to better understand the flow of Qi. The experience of Qi flowing will become more intense as you continue to train, and your energy level will rise higher. At this stage, you begin to move into the next level: the study of Qi. You see, not until you are generating Qi and it is flowing continuously will you be able to study what type of Qi energy it is.
Basically speaking, there are eight energies in Taijiquan: ward off, roll back, squeeze, press, shoulder, elbow, split, and grab. These energies are tools to use to effect an action. You need to understand each energy and its path through the body; how the energy is created; and how your body movements set the path of the energy. At this level, you begin to make distinctions among the eight energies and start to understand why, when you do a form, a particular energy exists. This is also understanding yourself, understanding the tools you have.
It is the same as when you want to make a complex graphic design on the computer. There is a learning curve associated with use of the software, and there are many designing tools available to you. You need to know which tool will give you the effect you want. Similarly, in carpentry or gardening, there are many tools, but for their effective use, you need to know the function of each. When comparing the tools in software, gardening, or carpentry, the difference among them is physical, something tangible and substantial. But Qi energy is something you create, something that comes out of nothing, something that is changing from insubstantial to substantial. The essence of the third skill level is to recognize what the energies are and explore their use.
Once you can distinguish the eight energies in the form as you practice, you are starting to move to level four, where you begin to learn how to use those energies. You are entering the stage of moving energies from one frame to another.
In level four, you no longer move just the physical body. Your study now centers on how you change from one energy to another, and in between changes, how you maintain the feel of the energy. This is a very mental and spiritual level. Here, the physical technique hardly exists; it is not really important.
The fifth level is only revealed as a result of going through a long period of training and practice that leads to a great depth of understanding and the ability to distinguish the energies and how to use them. It is here, at the highest level, where one begins to understand the changes between the energies and begins to use them as willed. At this level, there is no form, no shape, the energy just flows. When the energy is used on an another person, he will not even realize that the Taijiquan practitioner has used it. The person will be unaware that the practitioner is a master of his art. To the person reaching this level, everything seems very ordinary, very simple.
And Back Again
Together, the five skill levels are cyclic, taking one from the physical (the body) to the mental and, then, to the spiritual, and once reaching the spiritual, the physical is also changed, supporting the mental and the spiritual.
The Ten Essences are the rules, the guidelines. They are what you carry with you through the five skill levels that are the path of your Taijiquan journey. It is my hope that all who make this trek will reach the level that brings them an understanding of what the eight energies are and how to use them in their forms, but not only this-I hope that all will use this energy to help others. Whatever our thought, our physical body has a reaction. My wish for all is that they have only good thoughts toward others around them.