Cultivating Qi

So far this blog has talked about yielding and being Song. The importance of these cannot be stressed  enough. Without them, there cannot be internal martial arts. But how does one develop the other aspect, the internal power? With enough Song Gong and diligent practices, one can develop the soft power of the Yang Tai Chi. In my school, we also do Yiquan “Standing Pole” (Zhan Zhuang 站樁) exercises, which helps to develop the resilient frame and Qi.

Yiquan was found by master Wang Xiangzhai 王薌齋 with much emphasis on Zhan Zhuang for Qi development. In the subject of cultivating Qi, he wrote

For beginners, breathe in pure air through your nose, straight to “Sea of Qi” 氣海 (*). From 氣海 the Qi flows to the coccyx, and turning and moving in the Yao (waist region), which is where the kidneys are situated. The kidneys are the source of the flow to all other internal organs. The Qi then travels up the Du meridian to “Pill Palace” 丸宮 (**), returning to the nose region. The tongue (***) then leads the kidney Qi to travel downward, going to the abdominal region. Slowly condensing the “cinnabar” 丹 into the field 田 (e.g. sink Qi to the dantien). This is one of the most important secrets, and practitioners should not treat it lightly.

You may have read this as the microcosmic orbit. On the subject of moving Qi, my Sifu says that one should not worry too much about the Qi movement, and let it comes and goes as it does. As the Classics says, if one concentrates on the Qi, then the Qi stagnates. Nevertheless, this passage may serve as a bluepoint for your development. Notice also the differentiation of sinking the Qi first to the 氣海 point and then the end result of condensing Qi to the dantien – that is, while they reside in similar region, the acupuncture point is not the same as the dantien per se.

(*) Sea of Qi is the acupuncture point of the dantien (CV-6).

(**) Pill Palace Possibly (GV-26) Just below the nose.

(***) The method of touching your tongue just behind your teeth, on the upper palette.

Some people think there are all these big training secrets in these internal martial arts business…. And there are, for some schools. But mostly, you just need to practice correctly. Incorrect practice would not move you closer to the goals, but in fact hurt since they reinforce bad habits. So how we do know a practice is correct? Well, it’s a secret (!) Seriously, the Tai Chi Classics do not lie. People may not understand them, and people may misinterpret them, but no one who has attained the highest level ever says, “gee, those Tai Chi Classics sure are wrong.” So do your practices according to the Principles would be a start. If someone shows you something, ask yourself: is this in accordance with the Principles?

Lets give two concrete examples. First in this clip:

Master Zhu Datong demonstrates Song shoulders. If someone has a stiff or tight shoulder, you can easily move them.

The second example which is on yielding. In this exercise, concentrate on rotating around your center axel: have someone gently push and follow (up to 90 degrees or so, for example) on one side of your body. They can push you anywhere on the shoulder, on the arm, on the side of your body, all the way down to your hip. The push should be even and gentle, to practice the feeling of rotating around your central axis freely and yet just barely maintaining contact with the person pushing. Practice with them pushing randomly on either side, and as you develop your sensitivity or Ting Jin (Listening Jin), the pusher may push at spots closer to the centerline.

My Sifu says, if you truly understand Yielding, that’s like 50% of Tai Chi already. To yield you need to be Song. I hope the above clarifies.

// richard

On Song 鬆

Being Song (loosely: relax) is the first gate into the world of Tai Chi. 祝大彤 Zhu Datong, a student of the famous Yang Yuting and Wu Tunan, wrote in his book 太極內功解秘 “Tai Chi Nei Gong Secrets) that Song / Soft is the first stage, followed by 空 Empty, and then 無 Nothing. In this post, I will talk about Song a little.

Master Zhu says, to practice Song, is to change your original body: you must open up your joints, from the 9 major joints of your body, to all the little joints in the fingers and toes. With correct and prolonged practices, your joints open up as in a pipe (also see previous post on “Fascia, the Qi substrate”). Your muscles and skin must also be relaxed and cannot be stiff or tight. As the Tai Chi manuals say, to relax, start from the hair to the skin, then to the muscle, tendons, to the bones, and then from the bones, tendons, muscles, skin back out to the hair again. When your whole body is Song, your hair may stand on their ends even during the hot Summer. When you are Song, you can neutralize all the attacks… When you are Song, then you are ready to enter the next stage of “Understanding Jin.” (*)

In most classes, students are often told to relax their shoulders. While correct, as the shoulders are probably the most difficult part to relax, master Zhu says that one should relax the feet, the legs, and work the way up to the shoulders. If one relaxes the shoulders first, then the shoulders are “mobile,” but not truly Song

(*) Subject of yet another post (they sure pile up…).

Another trap on “not learning the right way to yield” is that once a person has accumulated some skills, the person can see and feel his (*) (usually not as skilled)  opponent’s weakness. So it’s easy for the person to “yield” and immediately gains the upper hand vis-a-vis his opponent. The problem then is that one never really learns to yield properly that way.

Likewise, the danger of learning something fast is that a person may not practice as hard. So while a person may learn 80-90% of a skill immediately, the remaining 10-20% remains out of reach as ever.

Another thing is the blind skeptics: “Clearly this stuff is fake since (I do not see how that person connects with his dantien | that hopping can’t be real | how can anyone can do it like that | …)” While we must be skeptical, we must also have an open mind. Most of these criticism boil down to “I can’t see how I can do something like that,” with the emphasis on the “I” part.If you are truly a truth seeker, keep your mind open, aim high, and keep looking for answers (**). Clearly there are things on the extreme end that are more than likely impossible (e.g. shooting lighting bolts from fingertips), but then again, there is a whole spectrum of internal martial arts skills and feats that are beyond most people’s experience. Out of your knowledge zone does not necessarily mean that it is “out there.”

(*) Usually I would be gender neutral and use “his or her” or even the old style correct “their,” but sadly in these cases, “his” is likely correct most of the times.

(**) Surfing on the Internet or watching youtube videos are probably not the best avenue.

On Yielding

Yielding is one of the most important skills in Tai Chi. However, most people do not yield, they redirect. Worse some people are overly concern themselves with return attack, as they think that one must return the force to win. When you want to win, your mind is in a different space than yielding and your yielding will not succeed.

So what is yielding? First of all, it’s not just neutralizing, and it is not grounding an incoming force. Not that they are ineffective, but they are not yielding.

In Chinese, yielding is 走化 zouhua, literally: zou, to move; hua, to change, transform. The key to understand yielding is the lines in the Tai Chi Classics:

My opponents do not know me.

A fly cannot land (on me).

If you ground a force, then you are giving your opponent a chance to know you. At the highest level, if a person has a high level of Qi, then they can absorb the incoming force with ease without a fixed center. However, very few people are at that level.

Neutralizing is not enough as it only corresponds to the hua aspect. The zou aspect must also present. Therefore, to yield, one must be Song (*) and the timing must be just right. This is called using Ting Jin (“listening” skill). In other words, as the Classics say

Adhere, follow, stick, and link (**)

So how does one avoid “yielding to death?” A common misconception is that one must return the force, or a person would run out of room to yield. However, this is a misconception based on equating yielding with collapsing. Yielding must be done with no-force, but the structure must be maintained (Zhong Ding, central equilibrium in Chinese). This does not mean that you brace or maintain a (rigid) frame, but that your movement and your internal jin (Nei Jin, as in the title of this blog) prevent you from collapsing.

It’s the level beyond Song, it’s becoming Empty. When you are empty, no one can know you and a fly cannot land on you.

(*) The relax yet alert state.

(**) Subject of another post.

Flip through any human biology book and you should see that a human body is made up of different subsystems: the skin, the muscle, the skeletal, the blood circulation, the nervous system. If it is a medical book, it would even have the lymphatic system overlaid.

What most books miss the most is the most important subsystem for the internal martial artists: the fascia system. What is the fascia? Imagine a system where it connects to the muscles, the bones, the tendons, the ligaments, and serve as webbing surrounding all the internal organs. In other words, the connective tissues that connect to all other systems. The Chinese word for it is 膜 membrane, suggesting its nature.

The acupuncture meridians, unsurprisingly, map to the fascial pathways, and unsurprisingly, the abdominal area is a nexus of fascia materials. The kicker? Take a look at a book on fascia anatomy book (*), and compare the major fascia systems with for example, Chen Xin’s famous drawing of the silk reeling spiral Qi lines.

Make you think. Doesn’t it?

Then consider the fact that to most people, fascia is not even on their radar screens. If they pay any attention at all to the connective tissues, it’s to avoid injury. Very few training exercise is specific to this area. No wonder most people do not “get” internal martial arts.

Among other documents, the Yang’s “40 Chapters” makes it clear that Qi travels in the fascia, tendons, ligaments connective tissues, hence the heading of this blog entry, “the Qi Substrate.”

(*) Anatomy Trains, by Meyer is a good one.

One of the lines the Tai Chi Classics reads:

Qi is as (a) Drum Resonating, Shen is as collected internally

What is Drum Resonating (Gu Dang) ? Wu Kung Cho (*), in the Wu style seminal manual, the “Gold Book” (http://wustyle.com), as translated by Doug Woolidge says:

Drum Resonating refers to the integrating of Jin energy that occurs whether moving, still, emptying, filling, opening, closing, hardening or softening. When drum resonating Jin energy occurs, mind moves intention, intention sends Qi and Qi sends the body. Because the mind and Qi are so directly interconnected, Yin and Yang can mutually transform instantly, like raging wind and pelting rain accompanying frighteningly huge waves.

and Chen Wei Ming (**), as translated by Barbara Davis says:

The highest gongfu of taiji push hands is lancai. This is done entirely by means of jin of gudang (drum resonating). You gudang your opponent, and cause him to be like a boat meeting the wind going in and out of the billows. He is dizzy and has no control. He lists and joggles about, losing control, and is not even able to fathom his own center of gravity. This is the application of gudang.

Both sound pretty good, but really doesn’t say much that a practitioner can use. The image of a drum resonating seems to be insufficiently used in the above.

Finally, another clue! In a rare book by Shi Diao Mei 施調梅 (***), it reads (translation mine):

The two phrases “Qi is as (a) Drum Resonating, Shen is as collected internally” is one of the first steps into the internal martial arts… if you breath deeply using reverse breathing { EDIT: Louis Swaim correctly points out that the Chinese phrase only says “Abdominal Breathing,” and not necessarily reverse breathing. In this manner, the text is unclear whether “natural” or reverse breathing is meant. END EDIT}, and coordinating with the opening and closing of the movements, the diaphragm is pressurized. Thus when you inhale and exhale while moving, due to the pressure from the abdominal diaphragm, the internal organs are moved and exercised. This is called Drum Resonating…

There are much more. And people say the Classics do not contain explicit descriptions.

Before I close this entry: reverse breathing is one of those old secrets. It should be done with care and it is best if you get qualified instructions, otherwise, bad side effects such as increasing blood pressure, headache, hemorrhoids etc. may result. You have been warned.

Finally, a plug to one of my favorite bookstores: http://www.plumpub.com They carry a lot of books, both in Chinese and English, and VCDs, DVDs. Nice folks, great selection, prompt shipping. What more can one ask for (except for the Wei Shu Ren’s book, hint hint, Debbie 🙂 )

(*) Wu style founder Wu Jian Quan’s second son

(**) One of Yang Cheng Fu’s students

(***) He was a student of Tian Zhao Lin, a student of Yang Shao Hou and Yang Jian Hou (third son of the great Yang Lu Chan and father of Saho Hou). Shi Diao Mei is the teacher of Tchoung Ta Tchen