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The Tai Chi Classics
 
The Tai Chi Classics are a collection of sayings from Tai Chi Masters, the most famous being the Treatise of Master Chang San-Feng and the Treatises by Master Wang Tsung-Yueh and Master Wu Yu-Xiang. 
 
It is from these texts that we discover the accepted Tai Chi principles.
 
The following explanations relating to some of the sayings and metaphors found in the classics originally appeared on our Yiheyuan Martial Arts Facebook wall.
 
 

 

Tai Chi Classics 1 - Follow the circle to find the straight line

 
In Tai Chi, you can use circular movements to your advantage in a fight, eg by:
 
"spinning your attacker off the rim of a wheel" during a roll back, or
 
"rolling the dantien" to release your whole-body power, or
 
absorbing incoming force in a circular manner, redirecting it through the circle and
directing your attacks or throws as tangents off the circle. 
 
The same principles apply in Ba Gua.
 
If you throw a brick it may not go far, but if you tie a bit of string round it, whizz it round your head a few times and then let go...
 
Everyone knows that Tai Chi and Ba Gua movements flow in circles.  Not everyone appreciates why.  Perhaps there's a bit more to it than feeling good and looking aesthetically pleasing.
 
 
 
Tai Chi Classics 2 - Doing too much is the same as doing too little
 
While it's obvious that over-reaching can leave you over-committed, off-balance and vulnerable as well as stiff, tense and dependent on muscular force, and it's equally obvious that over-relaxing to the point of becoming a limp rag can leave you weak and easy to knock over, the third way isn't simply looking for the mid-point between these two extremes of hard and soft, extended and unextended.
 
We're not looking at the mid-point between a stick, which can be snapped, and a feather, which can be blown away; nor are we looking at the mid-point between an unyeilding iron bar and a blob of trembling jelly.
 
We're actually looking for an entirely different quality, something more like a rubber tyre that's resiliant enough to hold it's overall shape yet can bounce things away without effort.  Another analogy would be a hosepipe that can fill with water under pressure and lash out by expressing the power of the water through the flexible pipe, rather than through any effort of the pipe itself. In this analogy, the pressure of the water would be generated from a pump.  In the body, the feeling of chi expanding, surging and flowing through the limbs is generated from the Dantien.
 
For this to work, the pipe needs to remain firm yet flexible and free of kinks and blockages, and the core Tai Chi principles such as sinking and rooting, dropping the shoulders and suspending the crown point need to be set as default.
 
In this relaxed yet powerful state, incoming forces can be sensed, absorbed and redirected or bounced off, as appropriate, using minimal effort, while retaining balance, structure and stability.
 
 

Tai Chi Classics 3 - The waist turns like the axle of a wheel
 
Imagine a cart on its side with the axle vertical and the wheels horizontal.  Imagine the upper wheel in front of you.  If the axle can spin freely, the wheel can turn when you push on it. 
 
A bent axle is not much use and nor is one which is catching on something.  If it is straight, upright and free from obstructions, it can do its job properly and the wheel will turn.
 
It's the same with the human spine: if it's upright, loose and unrestricted, it can turn freely; if it's bent, twisted or obstructed, it becomes stiff and inefficient.
 
Locking the legs out straight puts a curve in the spine that creates pressure between the vertebrae and restricts their movement.  Deliberately bending the knees creates tension which tips the spine forward and also inhibits movement.  Even raising or lowering the chin (instead of suspending the crown point) alters the alignment of the spine and restricts its movement.
 
What we train in Tai Chi, Hsing Yi and Ba Gua is a posture that is neither straight-legged nor deliberately bent-kneed.  Just sit down and let the knees "give".  This has a completely different effect to deliberate knee bending.  The spine remains vertical, the crown point remains suspended, the vertebrae separate and the waist is able to turn freely.
 
The spokes of the wheel prevent it from collapsing in as you push. If the wheel is fitted with a rubber tyre, it will also have a springy quality that can bounce objects away.  Your spine is the axle, your arm is the spoke, your peng jing (ward-off energy) is your springy rubber tyre quality.  The tyre does not stiffen - it remains springy.  The wheel does not collapse - it turns. This is the basis of pushing hands and many of the applications of Tai Chi Chuan and Ba Gua Zhang.
 
 

Tai Chi Classics 4 - Even the mosquito finds nowhere to land
 
If you have ever been led around a room with your eyes closed, guided by just the tip of your finger - a common exercise in Tai Chi classes - you will have discovered the amazing power of the sense of touch.  You may also have realised how much harder the exercise becomes if you try to do it with your eyes open.
 
There is a reason for this.  Sight is usually the dominant sense and when we can see what's going on around us, the rational brain rolls up its sleeves and gets to work "helping" or, perhaps more accurately, "interfering".   Suddenly the alertness and sensitivity take a back seat and you are into the business of trying to predict your partner's every move or maybe taking over the leading process altogether, causing you to break finger-contact.
 
You might think that using your eyes would make the process easier.  In theory it should, since you have more information available, but in practice, the rational mind messes things up and diverts the attention to visual images and away from other sensory input.  You may have heard of the blind man who can cycle through woods using echo-location from verbal clicking sounds he makes, in much the same way that bats do.  Most of us have been fortunate enough never to need to discover this ability but it's a good example of what we are capable of if we pay more attention to what our other senses are telling us.
 
Rational thought processes are slow.  Feelings and instincts are faster. When you are fully present in the moment, posture "balanced like a scale", relaxed and upright, weight sunk down, alert and sensitive so that even a mosquito landing on you would not go unnoticed, you can respond instantly to your situation.
 
In a fight, as soon as you make contact with an opponent you can sense so much about their intentions and capabilities through your sense of touch. It's a large part of what Bruce Lee called "being aware of your opponent's whole energy."  It's faster and more reliable than trying to predict their every move and plan your tactics rationally.
 
This level of sensitivity and awareness leads to that other saying from the classics: "My opponent moves a little, I have moved first".

 
 

 Tai Chi Classics 5 - The Internal Energy Follows the Direction of Your Will
 
The Shen ("spirit" or Observing Self) leads the Yi (thinking mind) which leads the Chi (energy or life-force) which leads the Li (physical body).  This is called Mastery.  If it appears to be working backwards, this is called Psychosis.  Anyone who feels that their chi is "taking them over" is advised to seek urgent assistance from a suitably qualified psychiatrist.
 
Meanwhile, back in the realm of martial arts and feet-on-the-floor reality, the Tai Chi classics advise us to be certain that "The internal energy circulates smoothly and completely", "The entire body and all the joints should be threaded together without the slightest break."  Or as Master Zhu Guang said: "The Chi must be continuous."
 
We spoke in previous notes about moving as if the limbs are hosepipes through which water flows under pressure from a central pump, the dantien.  Our will, or intention, drives this process, allowing us to control and direct the movements of the entire body as one smooth unit, without any awkwardness or interruptions.  Then indeed it becomes like "guiding a thread through the nine-channelled pearl."
 
As Chang San-Feng says in his eloquent treatise: "In all of this you must emphasise the use of the mind in controlling the movements, rather than the mere use of external  muscles...Your body must operate as if all the parts were one."
 
An important point to note here is that "use of the mind" doesn't imply strenuous intellectual concentration (which almost invariably interferes and slows things down).  The thinking mind is involved in directing the will, but in the role of a facilitator with respect to the Observing Self which witnesses the entire show and directs and rests the attention lightly on the whole process while maintaining an overall peripheral awareness and sense of connectedness with everything. As Master Zhu also said: "The Yi must be vast."
 
This process is somewhat like the written words of a story being transferred to the page from the mind of an author, with the pen, the hand that holds it and the ink that flows through it as the instruments through which the act of creation takes place. 
 
This applies to Tai Chi, Bagua, Hsing Yi and other types of activity.  It is practiced in forms, used in pushing hands and also leads to more balance, flexibility, effortless grace, power and ease of movement in our daily tasks.
 
Whether we are opening a door, slicing a tomato, running the 100 metres, ironing a shirt, painting a picture, delivering a pre-emptive strike or weeding the garden, just the appropriate amount of energy is used and we experience what is often referred to as "flow". When the intellect settles down and stops trying to "do things" we begin to fully experience and express what is there in the moment.
As it says in the Tai Chi Rap:
 
"Keep the whole thing moving and keep going with the flow,
Without doing any doing, without knowing what you know.
When your mind is as calm and as vast as the sea,
Using power from your centre, you'll be doing Tai Chi."

 

 
Tai Chi Classics 6 - Like an accordion, folding and unfolding
 
One of the most common mistakes in Tai Chi is pushing, striking or punching with the arms alone, relying only on the strength of the arm muscles rather than using any internal power.
 
An ingredient of internal power is the opening and closing of the joints, like an accordion or concertina.  As you roll the dantien and issue Fa Jing, the joints of the spine and shoulder blades, in particular, open up and then close again, momentarily rounding the back a bit like a turtle-shell, though the head and neck remain upright.
 
Of course, the ability to do this pre-supposes that all the basic default settings previously discussed - sinking, rooting, relaxation, crown-point suspended, spine straight, shoulders and elbows dropped - are already in place.  It is when you practice issuing your power into a punch bag, and compare it with normal muscular pushes and punches, that you fully appreciate the principles of Tai Chi as essential prerequisites for the issuing of whole-body power, rather than just as a set of arbitrary rules.
 
At this point, people often realise that their teacher was not just nit-picking or giving them a hard time over a few pedantic rules.  When you have found the source of your own power and understand how it works, you begin to become your own master.

 
 

Tai Chi Classics 7 - The Placid Cat and Eagle on the Wind
 
Watching a Tai Chi master is like watching a panther moving through the jungle: slow, smooth, relaxed, powerful, calm, patient yet alert and ready to explode into action as it pounces on its prey.  At rest, perfectly still; in movement, controlled fluidity.
 
If you watch a cat as it walks, you may notice the continuous transfer of weight from one leg to the other, no stopping and starting, just flow.
 
This metaphor from the classics may be the one that takes root in your mind and allows you to transform your Tai Chi so that you can experience and express the power and grace of a tiger and inspire others to do the same.
 
Or it may be that you prefer the image of the eagle "gliding serenely on the wind" yet at any moment able to swoop down to grasp its prey.  Your arms move on a cushion of air, your fingertips as sensitive as the wing-tip feathers of a bird; calm yet ready, always ready, in the moment.
 
Notice that each of these images implies controlled power and alertness, not airy-fairy wafting about with head in the clouds.  The latter is a common misinterpretation of Tai Chi, perpetuated widely by the "pink and fluffies" who have not yet developed the understanding of this martial art that comes with years of patient training.
 
Cloud nine may be very comfortable, and if it makes people happy then that has to be a good thing, but to experience the grace and power of Tai Chi as described in the classics is something awesome, and it's part of what makes this martial art the "Supreme Ultimate".
 

 

Tai Chi Classics 8 - The Dragon Body and the Snake in the Box
 
The classics advise us to begin with large, extended movements in our forms and gradually allow them to become more compact.  As the decades slip by, people may think that you are becoming lazier and putting less effort into your forms when in fact you are simply becoming more and more internally powerful and better at storing energy and controlling the amount you express.  There is also less inclination to show off your athletic ability, and a deeper understanding of life and the balance between yin and yang and their origin (Wu Chi).
 
This is not to undervalue the stage of taking the movements to their extreme in the early days.  You need to understand structure and timing and all the mechanics of the art and especially, learn to develop the dragon body: weight sunk down like a bear on its hind legs, thighs as strong and controlled as a tiger, waist coiling like a serpent as it directs the flow, fingers like the wing tip feathers of an eagle soaring on the wind.  Like a Chinese Dragon, you are the master of the earth, water and sky and you are free to move accordingly.
 
But from time to time, you can "put the snake in a box" and see what happens.  In a stationary "horse-riding" stance, practice the upper body movements of one of your Tai Chi Forms.  Then do it again, but this time as if you are standing inside one of the old telephone kiosks, so that you can't move your arms more than a few inches in any direction.  Notice what's happening inside you.  Just like a snake trapped inside a box becoming angrier and angrier the more it is restrained, you can feel the internal power writhing inside your torso, ready to explode outwards as you remove the restriction.
 
And of course, you chose the moment to express this power.  Again, as it says in the classics, "in action, watch the timing": know when to yield, when to attack, when to move, when to be still, when to experience your internal energy while remaiing outwardly still and when, perhaps with very little external movement noticeable to an observer, to release the snake from the box.

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