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Doing One Thing Correctly

Tai Chi Layer Training

Doing One Thing Correctly in Tai Chi

As a beginner, Tai Chi can be perceived as something quite simple.  Yet the emphasis on achieving the correct posture whilst relaxing the body and breathing deeply can be quite difficult at first.  As soon as you concentrate on dropping your shoulders, your lower back closes.  Ok, try again.... as you drop your shoulders your breathing reverts to upper chest breathing.  Hmmm, try again.....  Concentrate on deep belly breathing and your shoulder muscles become tense.   The focus on details can be immense and a bit overwhelming. The goal is to have your body, mind and breathing as one unit, working together naturally and smoothly.

Whether you are practicing the various Tai Chi static stances used with Qi Gong breathing, or are practicing moves within the form.  As a beginner try focusing on doing one thing correctly for a few minutes.  An example would be in your standing practice, for 2-3 minutes focus just on your shoulders.  What are they doing, how can you relax them, can adapt your posture gently, are they getting tired early, can you move them slightly to get a better connection?  Use a mirror if you need to initially, until your body learns instinctively where to put itself. Over time the more training you do, these moves will become natural, meaning your body has built a memory from practice. This is how you progress. Over time the layers you have trained begin to merge together.

Layers in Tai Chi/Qigong - Static Stance Training

Principle Focus
Feet There are many different ways to balance the weight on your feet. Overall aim for a solid equal connection on the three balls of the feet; two at the front and one at the heel. Weight centred or weight slightly back.
Ankles Central and straight. Avoid the ankles rolling in, remedy this by opening outwardly without changing the feet position.
Knees Knees bent slightly with a springiness, sitting over the centre of the laces (sometimes called over the arch). Not past the toes, nor locked straight.
Dang Rounded, open, arched, relaxed groin and thighs.
Song Kua Relax the inguinal crease and area around the hip joint, out towards the buttocks. This helps the hip muscles and psoas to relax.
Hips Sit back and down into your hip crease, a mini squat that you hold with relaxed suspended and aligned power.
Tailbone Relaxed sacrum and tailbone, with the tailbone aligned behind the heels.
Pelvis Don't tilt the pelvis forward or back, keep the pelvis in neutral in the middle. For those who exaggerate the S curve in the lower back in the daily life, roll the pelvis slightly under, tipping the tailbone down. Imagine the pelvis is a bowl with water, don't spill the water.  This opening is both vertically and laterally as the pelvis spreads from left to right. Avoid over exaggerating this to create the principle. Everyone holds their spine through habit differently, this will need to be looked at by your instructor.
Lower Back Open the lower back by relaxing and lengthening the lumbar and sacrum. Bring dantian towards mingmen to fill the lower back to protect your spine.
Dantian Concentrate the mind on the Dantian (approx 2 inches below your navel, and approx 2 inches into the body, the Dantian is your energy storage centre).

Breathe into the Dantian area, slow circular abdominal breathing (full diaphragm breath).

Waist (Yao) Relax the soft tissue around the waist and side body, without collapsing your structure. The flesh of the waist must be released and lengthened.
Elbows (Chui Zhou) Drop the elbows. Place a gently relaxed weight in the elbows to create space in the joint. Keep a slight bend in the elbows. In wuji stance the elbows are slightly away from the body.
Hollow Chest (Han Xiong) Chest relaxed. Avoid sticking the chest out, which closes the lower back and the shoulder blades. Avoid sinking and slumping the chest inwardly or down. The chest is in neutral.
Shoulders (Chen Jian) Shoulder blades open. Avoid the shoulder crests protruding forwards, and the shoulder blades closed together at the back. Relax and drop the shoulders down with gentle weight. Avoid having your trap muscles hunched up by your ears. Shoulders carry a lot of tension. Align correctly and work to release and relax.
Central Spine The spine is centred, straight and erect. Imagine it like a rope rather that a solid pole. Avoid swaying back and the military posture. The natural curves are maintained in the spine, not over exaggerated (see pelvis).
Suspended Spine (Ding) Lengthening the spine by heavying the hips, aligning the lower back correctly and gently expanding the spine upwards to the crown. Creating equal opposing relaxed force, to open and create space in the spine.
Neck/Head/Crown (Ding) Head erect, chin gently withdrawn. Feel the spine gently lengthen and open at the back of the neck, allowing the weight of the head to travel down the spine. Relax and release the muscles around the neck.
Mouth (Ding) Cross the magpie bridge to connect the microcosmic orbit (ren and du mai channels). The tongue gently touches the roof of the mouth, by the top front teeth. This sets the body up for nasal breathing.
Fang Song The most important principle of all that can be applied to your posture whether in stillness or movement. Letting go of the muscles whilst maintaining and aligned body and an elastic stretch. The release of physical tension and active relaxation, without collapsing your skeleton.  The joints/bones are open with space around them. Muscles relaxed, using appropriate muscular contraction.  This means avoiding using all of your muscles at once, which is too many muscles and will drain your energy quicker.
Guan Jie Song Kai Opening the joints with relaxation. Creating space in the joints by releasing physical tension and actively relaxing the joints through a gentle expansion. Not locking any of the joints in the skeleton. You want your body to be completely connected without blocking the meridians.
Yi Mind intention. Focus on your breathing to calm the mind and release mental distraction. Become aware of sensations in the body and follow them e.g. hot, cold, pulse, tension, tingles. Mentally scan your body from the crown to your toes for areas of tension, and mentally drop these areas of tension away.
Yong Yi Bu Yong Li Use the mind/intent, not strength/force. This means to avoid straining your mind and body when following the principles. Train stances from the inside, working to the outside. This could be using your imagination of a principle, before this becomes a reality in the physical body. Physically you may be doing less, mentally you are doing more. Over time the balance shifts to the body doing more. Train with grace not force.

For more information on how to align within the standing postures called "Zhan Zhuang", click the image below titled "Standing Practice".

Layers in Tai Chi - Active Movement Drills and Form Training

When learning the Tai Chi form and training drills, it is important to have a single point of focus. This is active mindfulness. There are many layers of learning, and it is impossible to focus on them all at once. By training the layers and principles separately, over time they all start to mould together in your performance, as muscle memory develops. Noted below are a few of the examples of what your single point of focus can be in your form practice. Before you practice, set out the goal of the session, or change focus each routine or form your perform. Anytime your mind gets distracted, re-focus on the principle or goal. Bring the mind back to that single point of focus.

Qigong follows the same principles, with the exception that the body moves through a greater range of motion and then returns to the core principles.

Your Tai Chi instructor will guide you through the principles at the right time in your training. It's important to avoid being overloaded with information. Beginners will work on their posture followed by the first few principles below.

Principle Focus
Peng Jin Expanded, rebounding, resilient, spiralling, balloon-like structure and motion.
None of the principles work without peng jin.
Fang Song The absence of resistance. Active relaxation of the muscles. A release and letting go of unnecessary physical tension and holding. Not slouched or floppy, or slumping into the joints.
None of the principles work without fang song. The principle fang song can be applied to any muscle, any part of the body or any joint.
Ding Body upright, spine, neck, head. An upward lengthening elastic motion in the spine, paired with opposing 'Chen' force.
Chen Grounding and rooting in the lower body.
Ground path A heaviness of the lower body pressing into the ground through the feet, paired with an opposing elastic expanding connection to the opposing hand, wrist, elbows or shoulder.
Dang Rounded, open, arched, relaxed groin and thighs, including the knees.
Kua The outer hip crease, internal hip socket, part of the buttock and lower back. Responsible for the Tai Chi squat, sinking and turning motion.
Fen Xu Shi The difference between empty and full when shifting weight onto each leg. Training single leg balancing drills, empty stances and 70% - 30% weight shifting.
The 13 energies and 5 directions Peng  (Outward - Straight direction)
Lu  (Roll back - Straight direction)
Ji  (Squeeze press - Straight direction)
An  (Push down - Straight direction)
Kai  (Pluck - Diagonal direction)
Lieh  (Split - Diagonal direction)
Zhou  (Elbow - Diagonal direction)
Kao  (Shoulder - Diagonal direction)
Step to the left
Step to the right
Centre Zhan  (Flash)
Teng  (Rise)
Zhe  (Break)
Kong  (Empty)
Huo  (Change)
Arms Wrists not passing the centre line, nor extending further than 45 degrees from the centre line. Limbs not hyper-extending to a locked position.
Yao The waist loosening and turning in the movements. Song yao is applying active relaxation to the waist.
Dantian Rotation of the dantian through the movements.
Chan Si Gong Silk reeling motion, spiralling of upper and lower body and torso.
Connective tissue Lengthening and stretching the connective tissue, tendons, sinews, fascia with elastic expansion, compression and coiling.
Muscles (cotton) Releasing, relaxing and softening the muscles, whilst surrounded by lengthening and stretching connective tissue. See fang song above.
Aligned posture (iron) An aligned skeleton with open joints.
See static stance training list as above.
Symmetry in the body.
Co-ordination "One part moves, all parts move". The lower and upper body are integrated in movement.
Rebounding Flowing elastic connected, rebounding and rooted movements. Avoiding wooden / awkward motion.
Continuity in movement Unity and connection between different limbs and parts of the body that are moving fast and slow simultaneously, including large and small movements.
Transitions Not dropping the body mechanics at the end of each movement, keeping the principles 'rolling' and rebounding motion throughout the form.
Abdominal breathing Combining diaphragmatic breathing with store/release, expand/compress, yin/yang in the movements.
Expansion and compression Hydraulic motion in all of the joints.
Store and release Finding yin and yang in movement, and fajin.
Kan and Li Lower body like water, upper body like fire.
Martial intent Playing out the key martial applications in the mind through the form.
Yi / Mindfulness Being present in the moment with focused concentration.

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