Wisdom and Power: A Philosophical Approach to T'ai Chi

Chapter 8:
Working Out


It is time to begin in earnest the process of transmuting the abstract conceptions of T'ai Chi into concrete abilities. The crucible in which this transmutation will occur is the training hall. The ingredients: correct understanding, unremitting perseverance and hard work.

Just for the record, I want to reiterate that neither this chapter nor any of the rest of the book is intended to take the place of a qualified teacher (and would be unable to do so even if that were intended). What it will do is to give you a good idea of what to expect from a T'ai Chi class, as well as some supplementary exercises you can practice on your own or with a friend. It will also help you to understand the meaning and purpose of some of the exercises a good teacher may put you through that might otherwise seem obscure.

Conversely, you should not be disappointed if your teacher does not use these particular exercises, or uses variations of them. Since T'ai Chi is process oriented rather than technique oriented, there is a wide latitude in which each teacher can use his own creativity and personal experience to convey the sense of movement and energy which is the bedrock of the art. Most teachers will begin their instruction with nothing but the form, and insist that the form must be memorized before moving on to more spontaneous exercises. This is a good idea, because some practice with the form will give you at least an elementary sense of the correct way to move, without which the other kinds of training are very tedious to perform and impossible to comprehend.

The "correct" way to move, developed in the T'ai Chi form, is one which is based on a deep understanding of the true nature of the human being. You may have heard of various "animal styles" of Kung-Fu, in which the forms are designed to simulate the powerful fighting movements of various animals: tiger, crane, leopard, mantis, etc. From this perspective, T'ai Chi can be called "human style" Kung-Fu. Its movements are carefully built around a profound comprehension of the particular human anatomy, the human cycles of Ch'i flow, and the way that a human being most naturally expresses the patterns of the Law of Change. It is the system of movement which makes maximum use of all aspects of the human potential.

In the process of learning and repeatedly practicing the T'ai Chi form, your habits of posture and movement will change. Areas of tension and energy blockage, unbalanced or inefficient ways of moving will become streamlined and transformed. Culturally acquired habits of body-use which do not fit harmoniously with the natural functioning of the human body will be eliminated, and in their place will come a graceful, flowing style of movement that is both easy and powerful. This style of movement is not something artificial that you will "put on" when you practice T'ai Chi, then leave behind when you retire from the training hall; it will permeate your entire being. A tiger does not practice "tiger style" movements to fight, only to adopt a tense and awkward gait when he roams through the forest. The tiger is at one with his style of movement, and the T'ai Chi artist is the same.

The more adept you become at the T'ai Chi form, the more you will find yourself moving in this way in everything you do: walking down the street, sitting in a chair, lifting heavy packages or anything else. You will find this change in yourself to be one of the most positive transformations you can imagine; by changing the way you use your body, you will become stronger, more graceful, better coordinated, more self-confident, more optimally human in everything you do. Your energy level and resistance to illness will improve dramatically, your alertness and vitality will amaze you. Mundane physical tasks that were once a drag will be easy and natural. As you change in this way the real benefits of the art, which far transcend the ability to fight effectively, will become your own.

For actual fighting training, however, the T'ai Chi form is absolutely essential, because this form is what teaches you to follow the Law of Change without resistance. All of the T'ai Chi fighting tactics are based on this ability: it is what enables you to anticipate your opponent's actions, and to accept his attacks without becoming unbalanced.

Just as the form is the beginning of T'ai Chi training, so it is the end. When you have "mastered" pushing hands and sparring, you will still be learning the form. I have met or studied with some of the most advanced teachers in the world, and I have never encountered anyone who claimed to do the form perfectly. It is and ideal to be strived for; and, like all ideals, it can only be approached ever more closely, but never captured.

Regardless of what sort of workout schedule you set for yourself - whether you go to class once, twice or three times weekly - you should go through your form at least once every day. Forever.

Even if you reach the point of having learned all the formal techinque you need from a teacher-student relationship, you should still do the form every day on your own. It takes only a few minutes, requires no particular place or equipment, doesn't leave you sweaty or exhausted, and will confer almost miraculous benefits on its faithful practitioners. But you must be consistent, for missing only a day or two will set you back. If you will take the small effort of making form practice a regular part of your daily routine, like brushing your teeth, you will assure your success in the pursuit of the Supreme Ultimate. What more can I say?

The other kinds of exercises you will encounter in T'ai Chi are quite numerous, but fall into essentially five broad categories: pushing hands, sparring, breathing, standing and meditation. The basic standing exercises were presented in Chapter Four, so here I will describe and illustrate one exercise in each of the remaining categories.

Next to the T'ai Chi form itself, pushing hands is the most valuable exercise in the art. It is particularly indispensable for fighting training, since it allows you to experience the give and take of two energies meeting one another, and requires you to deal with this confrontation by moving in the fluid and non- resistive manner which characterizes the internal martial arts.

There are variations of pushing hands which use both fixed and moving steps, rigid patterns or spontaneoujs movements, one hand or both. Illustrated here is the most common of these: fixed stance, two-handed pushing hands, in both rigid pattern and free form variations.

Illustrations 8.1 - 8.6
Fixed pushing hands sequence

To begin the exercise, the partners face each other in the basic forward stance of T'ai Chi, at about arm's length apart. One partner places his palms lightly in contact with the other's forearm (8.1).

Keeping the spine erect and moving from the Tan T'ien, partner A pushes gently on partner B's forearm, forcing it into his body. As partner B senses this pressure, he begins to withdraw and turn his body (8.2), causing the attack to slide easily past him.

As A's attack begins to reach the limit of its extension, partner B places his palms on A's forearm as he circles the attack back to his partner (8.3).

Partner A begins to withdraw and shift his weight backward. Partner B keeps his palms lightly attached to A's forearm and presses the attack in toward A's chest (8.4).

A responds by continuing to withdraw and turn his body at the waist, causing B's attack to miss its mark (8.5).

As B's attack reaches its limit, A places his palms on B's forearm circles the attack back, and prepares to follow B's retreat (8.6).

This sequence is repeated for the duration of the practice, each partner in turn pressing toward the other as he shifts forward, then warding off and rolling back to thwart the counterattack.

You will recognize this sequence as "grasp the tail of the sparrow" from the T'ai Chi form. It is the single most important sequence of movement tin the fighting style, and teaches you how to sense incoming energy (ward-off) and allow it to direct your retreat (roll back) in such a way that the attack misses its mark; then, with a continuation of the same movement, to return the attack to your opponent (push). It is of utmost importance in practicing this sequence to maintain extremely light hand contact. This contact must never be broken, but shjould be as light as a feather. Your hands should feel as if they are glued to your partner, rather than as if you were holding them there with your muscles. If you feel the slightest pressure or resistance, you are performing the exercise incorrectly.

This light, adhering contact can only be accomplished by emptying yourself of all tension and following your partner's attack. Keep in mind that you are not trying to block his attack or forcibly push it out of the way. Rather, you are letting it guide you out of harm's way.

The coordination among the simultaneous movements of different parts of your body in T'ai Chi is such that, if you move in this way, merely contacting the leading edge of an attack lightly with your wrist or forearm assures that the attack will miss its mark: as the limb is pressed in by the force of the attack, the rest of your body, moving in coordination, is not there when the arm (and therefore the attacking blow) reaches its intended target. You need do no more than to follow the attack and let it move you as it will.

The non resistive technique of T'ai Chi is the simplest thing in the world to understand, and the most difficult to practice, because our habitual response to hostile incoming energy is programmed into our nervous systems, and it is a resistive response. The purpose of the form and of pushing hands practice is to change the nervous system, to alter the habitual neurological structure that is responsible for this automatic resistive response. Once this is accomplished, everything else is easy.

When you have become relaxed and comfortable with the fixed pattern of attack in pushing hands, the next step is to begin altering the pattern spontaneously. Rather than adhering to a repetitive sequence, you simply move as you will, keeping light hand-arm contact, and attack when you sense resistance or imbalance in your partner. Either partner may initiate an attack at any time, and the other partner must then withdraw non-resistively and (if possible) return the attack. The feet remain fixed as in the earlier pushing hands, and the principles of movement remain in accord with the T'ai Chi form. The following illustrations show some typical patterns of attack and response in free-form pushing hands:

Illustrations 8.7 - 8.10
Free-form pushing hands

When you first begin this practice, you will find yourself tensing up and pushing back against an attack quite frequently. Do not do this, even if it is successful in pushing over your partner. What is successful against an untrained partner will not be successful against someone with developed skills; nor, for that matter, against someone untrained who happens to be much stronger than you. Do not forget that the purpose of the exercise is not competition but training - training in the non-resistive fighting style of T'ai Chi. Calm and patience will ultimately pay off handsomely, even if they result in some initially frustrating experiences.

Not until you can push hands confidently without resorting to force, and without losing contact with your partner, should you attempt the various forms of sparring. Sparring is a much more realistic simulation of fighting, and is therfore of great training value; but it has the disadvantage that, with the much greater range of technique allowed, it is very easy to develop bad habits of movement and energy flow. Until you gave a solid grounding and practical experience in sensing and redirecting energy non-resistively, a sparring match can easily become a free-for-all whirlwind of haymakers and "Sunday punches." This kind of sparring will not aid your progress, but may actually cripple your ability to learn T'ai Chi in the long run. A word of advice, then: if you think you are ready for sparring, but find yourself grunting, sweating, using muscular force, etc., you are not ready for sparring. Go back to the form and pushing hands. You will know when you are ready when you can spar with the same grace, relaxation and ease as in pushing hands correctly.

When you have reached that point, there are seveal kinds of sparring which are of benefit. The one I will desctibe here is called circle sparring, because it is practiced within a circle drawn on the floor. The object of this exercise is to push your opponent out of the circle, which may be up to ten or twelve feet in diameter. The rules:

  1. You may move as much or as little as you wish, but you must keep at least one foot on the floor within the circle.

  2. Your object is to push or pull your opponent out of the circle. When both feet of either opponent leave the circle, the match is over.

  3. You may strike an push open handed (with the palm), or grab with the hand. You may only attack your partner's upper body (between the neck and solar plexus), back, arms and shoulders. You may not kick, knee, elbow, etc.

  4. The object of your strikes is not to cause your opponent pain or injury, but to knock him out of the circle. This means that you will attack in the direction of his imbalance and follow through with Ch'i. There is no element of "slugging it out" in this exercise.

The illustrations which follow show some typical movements and positions in the circle sparring exercise. Correctly practiced, circle sparring will bring the full range of T'ai Chi technique within your practical grasp.. The sense of timing, positioning, following enercy and non-resistive movement required to circle spar effectively will be directly applicable to any conflict situation in which you might find yourself. It requires no more skill or sensitivity to redirect an attack on a street corner than it does to allow a sparring partner's strike to slide past you. When you have gained confidence in the one, you will be equally confident in the other.

Illustrations 8.11 - 8.16

For this reason, it is of utmost importance that you concentrate on the correct application of T'ai Chi principles when you spar. It is of no value whatsoever to "win" a sparring match by means of muscular force or tense, jerky movements. By the time you are ready for sparring, you will already be quite familiar with all of the moving relationships and energy patterns of the T'ai Chi form: use them. Regardless of the speed with which you move, make certain that the various parts of your body are moving in an integrated manner. Sink and root. Move from the Tan T'ien. Never fall into a step, but take the step first, then shift your weight. Use ward-off to sense and interpret your opponent's energy, and attack at his moment of imbalance. Stay on point.

It will be confusing at first to try to keep all these things in mind while you try to respond instantly to an unexpected attack from your partner, and you will be pushed down repeatedly. Good. The experience of being pushjed down while tense and unbalanced is an absoultely necessary part of retraining your nervous system to react in a different way. Below the threshold of conscious thought, the body is a quick learner. If you allow it to experience the results of its initially confused reactions, it will very shortly adjust those reactions for you. Stick to the principles of T'ai Chi - don't "cheat a little" because it seems to work better to begin with - and wuth very little conscious realization on your part, you will change. Movements and patterns of response that seemed hopelessly awkward and ineffective will become natural and powerful. You will find your perception speeding up as your understanding integrates, and you will seem mysteriously to have much more time to deal with sudden and unexpected movements. In the pitch of conflict, everything will appear to be in a kind of "slow motion," and you will see easily what to do and be able to do it in a smooth and relaxed manner.

Heed the words of the I Ching: "Perseverance furthers; supreme success."

We turn now to the Yin half of this chapter, and the exercises of breathing and meditation. These aspects of working out are of great importance and, strangely, they are often omitted from the curriculum in many American T'ai Chi schools. Exactly why this is so, I am not certain. Perhaps it is because T'ai Chi is still so new to the West that many American teachers are temselves comparatively unfamiliar with these subtle aspects of the art. Or perhaps it is felt that Americans will not have the patience for these more contemplative disciplines, and that the physical practice alone is better than no practice. In any event, it is the fact that many schools either delay this aspect of training to more advanced stages, or omit it entirely. I think this is unfortunate, and therefore want to strongly encourage you to include breathing and meditation in your practice, even if your teacher does not emphasize it.

It is neither difficult nor time-consuming to do so. You should already be familiar with one form of meditation: the one in which you follow the T'ai Chi form in your mind, which I introduced earlier in the book. It is a simple step from this meditation to another which follows the breath, thereby killing two birds with one stone!

The importance of deep, rhythmical breathing is such that many systems of health and spiritual development are built around correct breathing alone, and it plays a central role in many others. Although each system has its own explanation for the importance of breath, ranging from the most purely physical to the most esoteric and mystical, they are all agreed on the nature of proper breathing, and on most of the benefits to be accrued through it. In T'ai Chi we say that deep, rhythmic breathing calms and relaxes the nervous system, opens up and cleanses the Tan T'ien, enlarges its capacity as it collects and energizes Ch'i.

There are many kinds of breathing patterns for specific effects, but they are all based on respiration that is deep and regular. Deep, in this context, means originating from the very bottom of the lung cavity and slowly filling up to the highest point in the chest. Regular simply means rhythmical in a repetitive, unvarying pattern - neither speeding up nor slowing down.

In practicing the T'ai Chi form, the movements themselves will help to regulate the breath. If you inhale with upward and outward movements, and exhale with inward and downward movements, a rhythmic pattern will automatically establish itself. Further, concentrating on the Tan T'ien as you move will tend to drqw the breath down to that level. The lower abdomen shoul expand with the beginning of each breath; and even though the lungs do not actually extend down that far, you should feel as if that part of your anatomy is actually filling with air. When the lower section is completely filled, you should allow the middle section of your chest to expand and fill; and only finally should you draw air into the very top of your lungs. The exhalation process is precisely reversed. First the air empties from your upper chest, then the middle region, and finally your abdomen contracts and forces out the stale air from the very bottom.

Now for the breathing meditation.

Assume either the right seated or cross legged posture and close your eyes (later, you can practice this meditation in the various standing postures, where it will add a whole new dimension to your development of Ch'i). Relax, sinking your energy to the Tan T'ien. When you are very calm and focused, draw in a deep breath, very slowly. As you do so, visualize the air, charged with radiant, glowing energy, streaming into your body and sinking to your Tan T'ien, then coursing through your meridian channels. You may choose to see the Ch'i as tiny, living particles, or you may find it easier to visualize as a kind of fluid or a "field" of energy. However you decide to picture it, you should have a definite visual image in your mind's eye of the Ch'i coming into your body with the breath and circulating with the rhythm of your respiration. You should see this as a kind of "pumping action," in accordance with the illustrations which follow:

Illustrations 8.17 - 8.18
Breathing In - Breathing Out

As you breathe in, Ch'i flows into the Tan T'ien reservoir, forcing the existing Ch'i out along the meridian channels to the body's extremeties. As you exhale, the Tan T'ien becomes emptied and Ch'i returns to it along the meridians, withdrawing energy from the extremeties. Thus, inhaling sends energy out from your center, exhaling withdraws it again to your Tan T'ien.

Breathe as slowly as you can without being jerky or feeling short of oxygen, and remember to start with the bottom of your lungs, filling to the top, and empty them in the reverse order. Keeping your attention riveted to your visualized Ch'i flow will be somewhat more difficult than imagining yourself going thorugh the T'ai Chi form, because you are now visualizing something intangible. You know what someone doing the form looks like, but you can only imagine the flow of Ch'i. That is what makes this a more advanced exercise.

Nonetheless, after a few minutes of this practice, you will begin to physically feel this flow exactly as you have visualized it. This will be quite an exhilarating experience, and your mind will have a tendency to start examining it: "Hey, wow, that's amazing, I can really feel this!" Of course, as soon as you begin to think this, you will be thinking rather than following the Ch'i in your awareness, and it will promptly go away. This is a crucial point in breathing meditation: to be able to actually experience the Ch'i flow without thinking "I am experiencing the Ch'i flow." The point at which you can entirely merge your consciousness with the circulation of Ch'i in coordination with your breathing, is the point at which breathing meditation becomes the meditation of "no thought." When you are at one with the great cycle of energy flowing through your body, you are at one with the all-pervasive flow of Ch'i throughout the Universe: beyond the illusion of separation, these flows are identical. The macrocosm is the microcosm.

So, we have come full-circle in our workout - from the most Yang to the most Yin, from the direct contact of opposing energies to absorption in the unity of life. This is appropriate to the nature of the art.

The tools provided in this chapter, together with the experience of supervised training with a qualified teacher, will take you where you want to go. I cannot emphasize enough that consistency and regularity in your approach to working out are far more important than large amounts of time devoted to the practice. A few minutes a day set aside for the form and breathing meditation, even on days when you do not have a class or more formal workout, will gradually change youor nervous system, your consciousness, your health and your entire experience of life. Working out in this way, modestly but with unremitting perseverance, you will come to tread the way of the Supreme Ultimate.

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