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group study Taijiquan: The Versatile Internal Martial Art

Group study openly invites people to exchange thoughts together based on premises that are always explicitly pointed out, however loose they might be, and when any fixed outcome isn't called for. It's good to keep mindful and respectful of both what is and what isn't relevant for discussion though.

Energetic conflict(s):      Warning. Extra attention and care with correct instructions are needed.

Precaution(s):     
  1. Forging ahead with Enthusiasm (ambitious and competitive spirit creates agitation)
  2. Advanced (beginners would not benefit from trying to sidestep laying the correct foundation)
  3. Teacher Needed (learning is too difficult without teacher's detailed assistance or supervision)

Discussion premise:      Comparative study (e.g. formal cultivation methods across different traditions, generic Qigong training principles, folk traditions, etc.) — Please try to uphold this point of view so that the discussion always returns to it.

Roots of Virtue

At Your Service
Staff member
Moderator
This is the general discussion thread for all things related to Taijiquan: experiences, substyles, martial applications, sensitivity training, lineages, supplementary practices, its internal force and commonly attained spiritual powers, and so forth.

Please, only post instructional Taijiquan videos here, unless you are making a detailed analysis about a Taijiquan related video. Very good quality Taijiquan demonstrations should go into this thread instead (and then referred back):




Taijiquan: the Versatile Internal Martial Art​


It's a fairly known image in the West that people might practice a slow and gentle moving exercise in parks. This particular exercise stereotypically involves elderly people, Chinese ethnic background, and synchronized group practice. It's commonly called Taiji which is an abbreviation of the more formal word Taijiquan or Tai Chi Chuan. The practice was popularized by the Chinese Communist Party as a gentle health exercise for all people and it's since spread around the world since the 1960s. However, the "quan" of Taijiquan literally means "fist", singling it out as a martial art. It's clear though that most of the modern Taijiquan has been deprived of its essence that would allow it to be used as an effective martial art. What might sound even more surprising is that this loss of the martial edge is intimately related to the fact how modern Taijiquan has also lost its highest capability to provide healing and meditative benefits. We must get back to the roots of Taijiquan if we want to have the real practice and discover it as an internal martial art which unites meditation and spiritual cultivation directly into martial practice.

My experience is that the word Taijiquan is often more familiar term to many Westerners than Qigong, the general umbrella term for the art of health improving energy practices. It's true that high-level Taijiquan can be though as a type of Qigong with occasional martial qualities. Based on such diverse approaches it's possible to categorize Taijiquan practice in versatile ways that complement each other.

Taijiquan has a mystified history like many ancient Chinese martial arts. Some say that a Daoist immortal called Zhang Sanfeng created it, but some claim the real essence of Taijiquan is much older, perhaps tracing to the Shamanistic past of Chinese history. Whatever the truth about history is, it's far more important to the aspiring practitioner that real Taijiquan is learned and practiced according to competent instructions which living lineages and accomplished yogis can only provide. Self-initiation and bad teachers will only contribute to injuries and the decline of real internal traditions, and it must be acknowledged that finding good and ethical Taijiquan teachers can be difficult. I want to emphasize that Taijiquan masters are typically free spirited and very kind-hearted and that very strict martial discipline may not be conductive to learning the art.


The Principle of Water: Wearing Down Even the Hardest Obstacles​


What exactly makes Taijiquan unique out of hundreds of different martial styles? Its martial philosophy could be said to be very versatile and all-encompassing, but also deceptively simple.

At the heart of Taijiquan is attaining harmony through being like water: soft and yielding. It's not just any harmony either, even though any given type of physical harmony is very important for martial arts and health, but the emphasis on harmony of the heart-mind is what makes Taijiquan have its refined and identifying flavor. The full understanding of the power of water requires insight into the classical concept of yin and yang which is more explored in the following thread titled Heaven and Earth: Hieros Gamos (Holy Marriage), the Cosmos, and the Virtues of Yin and Yang:


The term Taiji signifies the total created order of the universe where dynamic gradations of yin and yang manifest everything. When in action, the Taijiquan practitioner aspires to master the harmonies of yin and yang and how they mutually subdue each other: Soft diverts and overcomes the incoming hard force, and hard shatters the opponent when his movement is spent and retreating to recover strength (e.g. a thrown punch needs to retreat towards the torso for another swing to become possible). The separation of Taiji into yin and yang is a very technical aspect of Taijiquan training, but it also exists in all martial arts in terms of balance, rooting, and force. The wisdom of Taijiquan mechanics carries through with the incorporation of subtle roundness and spirality in practically everything. Among many benefits, this non-abrupt smoothness minimizes the time spent retreating which would otherwise expose the practitioner to counter-attacks.

For all of Taijiquan's external activity, Taiji is contrasted with the concept of Wuji which is the primordial void and potential therein. Wuji is the indispensible part of understanding Taijiquan's internal heart. The creation might stir with manifestations of yin and yang, but Wuji is its original mind that ever remains undifferentiated, peaceful, and stable like a great ocean at rest. Taijiquan simply ceases to be a soft, relaxed, and yielding art if meditativeness of Wuji is lost in any part of training or application. This is the primary reason why Taijiquan is often trained slowly: it is orthodoxly used to facilitate the presence of mind and peacefulness of heart. Only advanced practitioners may practice Taijiquan as a fast combat ready style without losing their inner tranquility.

It should be clear by now that the effective combat use of Taijiquan has a particularly high threshold that supposes the mastery of both meditative calmness and instinctive skillfulness in utilizing the separation of yin and yang. People new into meditation and martial arts shouldn't expect any respectful type of combat readiness through Taijiquan practice lasting less than ten years. More harder and external martial styles are much better suited for the quick learning of combat skills. Another noteworthy summary trait of Taijiquan is that it's very well suited for small bodied and non-muscular people. The Daoist philosophy parallels women as having the natural temper and humility of water which are also recommended to men for the development of lasting virtue. Overall, this makes Taijiquan a kungfu supremely suited for women and men who prefer to give a chance to grace over brutality.


Three Ways of Entering Taijiquan Practice​


Taijiquan can be thought as health, martial, alchemical (meditative), or wisdom practice. Neither of these need to be exclusive, but some approaches are considered more difficult and rarer than the others. All Taijiquan should be vitalizing and healing, otherwise it's fundamentally wrong. Besides Wuji, we also need a Taijiquan exercise form and instructions about Song or Neigong relaxation in order to apply Taijiquan for good health. Anything above simple health practice requires quite a bit more discipline and time investment, which doesn't sit well with many people and the modest results which they want.

So, what would be the best ways to approach Taijiquan from martial, alchemical, and wisdom perspectives?

1. Martial: Relaxed standing exercises or Zhan Zhuang to transform the physical body
2. Alchemial: Deep calmness meditation, both sitting and moving, to make the heart very still
3. Wisdom: Yielding exercises to open one's heart and spirit


1. Martial Taijiquan​


The most immediate combat readiness is attained through transforming the fascia, muscles, sinews, and tendons of the body. The Taijiquan practitioner may use methods that are quite familiar in other internal martial arts such as Zhan Zhuang variations that are held quite high, yet there are more Taijiquan flavored exercises like Silk Reeling, Cloud-like Hands, Lifting Water, and performing actual Taijiquan forms. All these train the physical tissues to accept Neigong relaxation and how to gradually do away with the use of superficial muscular force. The internal force that results from this way of practicing is more subtle and penetrating than in almost any other kungfu style, whether internal kungfu or not.


2. Alchemical Taijiquan​


Alchemical (Neidan) and meditative Taijiquan training focuses on deepening one's familiarity with Wuji. This works on causal basis, which is about cultivating and effortlessly upholding increasingly tranquil mind states until a breakthrough of vital energy introduces the practitioner into more refined experiences of stillness. In order to make progress this way, it's a must that emotional balance and mental health is in very good shape. Uneventful sitting meditations like Golden Flower can be thought as the gold standard how the stillness requirement is developed: with calm patience and non-attachment to any results. Moving practice can be introduced gradually in a way which integrates the already attained tranquility into physical movement; choosing whichever physical forms and postures make little difference except that Taijiquan's forms are particularly smooth, relaxed, and supportive of proper body harmonies by design, so that stillness isn't easily perturbed. There exist supplementary Qigong exercises that can speed up the attainment of the important initial stillness breakthrough, and there are other exercises that may even involve visualizations in certain advanced stages. Nevertheless, active use of mind is discouraged and may at best act as a mildly beneficial supplement.

The alchemical practice is very much energizing, but abundant vital energy merely is a side-effect when training the mind into greater stillness. Don't mistake this type of Taijiquan for a simple "energy practice".


3. Wisdom Taijiquan​


In my opinion, wisdom is the highest class of Taijiquan training: It can intrinsically turn combat into non-combat because it completely embraces the water-like humility. Standard Taijiquan curriculum would only have one decisively wisdom practice, namely Pushing Hands or Tuishou. Here two people spar with each other gently, flow with the movement, and try to sense each other's initiatives and adjust accordingly before they manifest. The point of the practice is not to win nor to compete with the partner, but accept both mental and physical non-resistance and yielding which in turn develop supernormal sensitivity and skill to flow around incoming force without being subdued or hit. Practitioners who embody the wisdom of Taijiquan develop the ability to affect the opponent's energy body even at a distance.

Both wisdom and sensitivity point to ordinary awareness which is naturally and effortlessly accessible to all of us, but remains hidden because of our agitated hearts. Yielding promotes antidotal therapy when we learn to let go of the greed of winning and the fear of hurting or perishing. Indeed, the true warrior's spirit shouldn't be shaken by any presumptive anticipation because the battle isn't over until it's over.

A quote from the thread Preliminary Training with Internal Kungfu as a Study Example:

Taijiquan is very conductive to renouncing the worldly spirit because it supports the yielding disposition and doing away with oppositional stances. The mind of yielding essentially is turning the other cheek: forgiveness, acceptance, and selfless surrender. It keeps the energetic heart open, which connects heaven and earth. This is the same ideal as with a stereotypical Zen monk in sitting meditation or a samurai standing in complete stillness in a duel without flinching or thinking anything. It's not a narrow focus at all, but lively and alert. Extremely grounded: not being influenced by anything. As a side remark, I consider the integrative methodology of Atiyoga to be the deal maker for superb kungfu because it accesses the heart-awareness purely regardless of the martial form.​


I speak from personal experiences when I say that certain tantric methods and Atiyoga can be used to make Taijiquan into a wisdom practice that trains Shen or spirit in a manner which is indistinguishable from Buddhist tantra. One of them is similar to the "Taiji pole" exercise and principle which is rarely mentioned to the non-initiated, but it needs a proper introduction by teacher or it will degenerate into a run-of-the-mill Qigong exercise instead of looking into mind's natural expanse of awareness.
 

Earl Grey

Gonzo Daoist and Dharma Punk
Teacher
In my experience, one can not jump immediately into wisdom Tai Chi. If you want to understand Tai Chi's wisdom aspect, you need at the very least the martial aspect because of the internalizing of the philosophies of Yin and Yang and Five Elements, and so much more that make doing martial forms literally poetry in motion.

To put it one way: you will make better analogies about food if you have a wide experience of cuisines you've tasted, and even more so if you actually know how to cook, followed by a good understanding of nutrition and health. Tai Chi is no different in that push hands can become verbal push hands as your rhetoric and approach changes where you are slow and relaxed rather than forceful (something I still am working on, believe me!).

One of the most irritating things I've heard is that people talk about ignoring the martial aspects of Tai Chi because it just fuels "tough guys" and that those who practice anything martial are immature and aggressive. That reasoning alone shows that they have never experienced the real revelation of martial arts is that you are not a proponent of violence, but a warrior who will fight for peace, and know that fists and weapons are your last resort. It's mental masturbation to think martial practice will just make someone arrogant and violent, because with a good teacher and lessons, a student develops confidence, sensibility, health and knowledge that is not rote memorization, but instinctive and intrinsic. But if a student has a bad teacher or attitude, then yes, they can potentially develop into meatheads.

Those individuals who presume violence and aggression for the martial arts lack wisdom because they don't understand the innate nature of conflict as being anything but dominance or power plays. If anything, the martial practice allows one to gain insight from meditating on the nature of conflict, whether it is the insights of The Bhagavad-gita or The Book of Five Rings, which, in spite of not being Chinese, have wisdom that has been applied into the framework of business and politics, much like The Art of War by Sunzi. It is much easier to abstract and conceptualize those concepts from martial arts and warfare into business, politics, social relationships, and human nature with experience, and to dismiss those experiences is to actually embrace an arguably more violent mindset of arrogant pseudointellectualism that may preach non-violence and peace, but in practice, is far more passive-aggressive and about control--something the Tai Chi student with martial skill and wisdom can see immediately.

A few examples of conversations with platitudes and the wisdom student might go like this:

Pseudointellectuals: "You don't need to be a martial tough guy to gain wisdom of the Tao. Violence isn't the answer."
Tai Chi student: "You're correct, you don't need violence--even in words."

Pseudointellectuals: "I realized long ago that it was a waste of time trying to learn to fight instead of trying to cultivate Tao."
Tai Chi student: "And I realized that those who pick fights, verbal or physical, are always trying to hide how they have neither martial nor cultivation skills whatsoever."

Pseudointellectuals: "You can avoid fights by just being in flow and loving people, so why learn how to fight?"
Tai Chi student: "Martial Tai Chi is too strong and can hurt someone in the wrong hands, so we actually are just learning to play with them instead!"
 
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Roots of Virtue

At Your Service
Staff member
Moderator
In my experience, one can not jump immediately into wisdom Tai Chi. If you want to understand Tai Chi's wisdom aspect, you need at the very least the martial aspect because of the internalizing of the philosophies of Yin and Yang and Five Elements, and so much more that make doing martial forms literally poetry in motion.

It is possible to attain the Taiji body through wisdom alone, but there is no guarantee that this will give the person any understanding of Taijiquan's martial applications.

You are right in that people usually transition to the wisdom Taiji from a fairly experienced martial background, whether it's Yiquan or even bushido arts. The reason for the transition is not the technical preparedness you alluded, but the fact that experience makes room for true humility and the acceptance of loss which the shaky fledgeling may intellectually grasp but not spontaneously allow: There usually is too much ego and emotional turbidity affecting the balance and grounding of the heart-mind. It's a readily witnessed fact that young and inexperienced people often have excess enthusiasm and desire to prove themselves to others, which lends to wanting to push against boundaries instead of dissolving limiting illusions and self-concerns gracefully.

Those individuals who presume violence and aggression for the martial arts lack wisdom because they don't understand the innate nature of conflict as being anything but dominance or power plays.

I agree that much of the angst against martial arts on the basis of "promoting violence" is completely side-stepping the issue of looking within to see the real roots of violence. It's not the wisdom path to complain about the external circumstances being disruptive or violent, but confront the hidden agencies of fear and rejection within oneself.
 
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Earl Grey

Gonzo Daoist and Dharma Punk
Teacher
It is possible to attain the Taiji body through wisdom alone, but there is no guarantee that this will give the person any understanding of Taijiquan's martial applications.

Fact.

You are right in that people usually transition to the wisdom Taiji from a fairly experienced martial background, whether it's Yiquan or even bushido arts. The reason for the transition is not the technical preparedness you alluded, but the fact that experience makes room for true humility and the acceptance of loss which the shaky fledgeling may intellectually grasp but not spontaneously allow: There usually is too much ego and emotional turbidity affecting the balance and grounding of the heart-mind. It's a readily witnessed fact that young and inexperienced people often have excess enthusiasm and desire to prove themselves to others, which lends to wanting to push against boundaries instead of dissolving limiting illusions and self-concerns gracefully.

The good field test comes from the wisdom body interacting with others through Verbal Tai Chi and Verbal Push Hands: can you disarm and charm or elevate others without raising your fists?

This is why developing sensibility is preferable over confidence. Sensibility is debatable as to whether it leads to the Tai Chi wisdom body or the wisdom body of Tai Chi leads to sensibility, however.

I agree that much of the angst against martial arts on the basis of "promoting violence" is completely side-stepping the issue of looking within to see the real roots of violence. It's not the wisdom path to complain about the external circumstances being disruptive or violent, but confront the hidden agencies of fear and rejection within oneself.

Violence with swords and fists are replaced with violent insults or threats, money and status, gossip and character assassination, and various other forms of penis comparison. At least the physical exchange is a more easily comprehended visual metaphor.
 
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