Tai Ji Ch'uan is an ancient Chinese system of self-cultivation and self-realization. It contains many life transforming methods of personal growth such as, self-healing (the prevention and even the elimination of many illnesses and diseases), self-defense, breath cultivation, Chi Kung (life force work), musculo-skeletal structuring, acupressure and meditation, etc. Its roots originate in the ancient Chinese classic, the I Ching, which dates back to the time of the Yellow Emperor, Hwang Ti (2,654 BC).
The deeper we delve into the many elaborate aspects of Tai Ji Ch'uan, the more profound it becomes. Many of us try Tai Ji in search of an exercise or a hobby and we inevitably find that Tai Ji Ch'uan is a multifaceted system of physical, mental and spiritual expansion that takes continuous study and application. It is a system of balancing and harmonizing the whole human organism at the root levels of our being with the cosmic forces of what many call "nature."
Plus, once we finally understand what we are doing, we realize that this is an incredible art form that can have the proclivity to save us from ourselves.
In order for Tai Ji Ch'uan to become the most effective for us we need to practice the 3 A's of Tai Ji Ch'uan: Attention, Awareness and Attitude.
Of course, there is more to Tai Ji Ch'uan than these three fundamental aspects, but these are the basic ingredients that will help transform us and carry us to places we never imagined existed. We will take a look at the 3 A's one at a time. We will also view their importance in relation to the body, mind and spirit, the Three Pillars of Kung Fu.
The true art of remembering anything is the art of paying attention to everything that comes our way. Whenever we start to learn something new we have to get used to it. We have to follow the basic requirements of whatever we desire to learn. It doesn't matter whether it's painting, running, chess, tennis or whatever. In learning Tai Ji Ch'uan, we will have to become the student, and we will have to assume the responsibilities of a student.
Most of us who start Tai Ji Ch'uan are adults who haven't been in a school or a learning environment for some time. Our habits and ways of thinking and doing have become fixed and we are not as open and as receptive as we used to be. This has to change. One has to get paper and pencil and start taking notes; start remembering exactly what the teacher said in class and then putting that information into practice when arriving back home. This requires attention.
Attention to the basics is of paramount importance to the beginner. Attention must be paid to keeping the elbows and shoulders lowered and down, the chest hollowed and the back raised, the spine open and pulled up, the joints unlocked and slightly curved, the sacrum straight and held in a central position and the upper and lower parts of the body moving in a coordinated manner.
We have to pay attention to how we hold ourselves when in motion, keeping the head and spine straight, as if the top of our head were suspended from above, and not leaning in any direction.
Attention to detail is also very important because if anything is left out, it could mean that we put a bad habit into practice, and they are very hard to get rid of once we adopt them. As the old Kung Fu adage says,
The student could mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself.
Paying attention to what the teacher says is one thing; however, attention must also be paid to what the teacher does. Watching how the teacher moves or sits and how he/she gets up from sitting should be observed and emulated. This will give us a blueprint to follow so that when we try to move, we move like the teacher. Every step that the teacher takes, every gesture, every look, are done so that we will see them, hear them, and hopefully, remember and imitate them.
Oral teachings and the execution of the movements are the basics of what we learn and attention to them is of great importance. However, Tai Ji Ch'uan is not just a physical discipline, it is also a mental discipline and it requires attention to more internal aspects.
The Tai Ji Ch'uan classics state,
When we move it is not our muscles, ligaments and tendons that are doing so. Chi is what moves and animates the body and mind.
Any practitioner will tell you that the chi within us is our life force, and if it is depleted we can become weak and may fall ill. When our chi is totally gone, we die. When our chi is abundant and flowing smoothly, we are healthy and strong.
So in the course of time, as we practice our daily Tai Ji Ch'uan routine, we are constantly building and reinforcing our life force, Chi. We learn how to develop it, cultivate it, store it, and manipulate it.
However, we are only able to do this through the power of our mind and will. As soon as we incorporate our mind into our physical practice, we start to change the way we practice. We need our mind to control our chi, for another old Kung Fu adage states,
Where the mind goes, chi will follow.
We need concentrated attention on all of the above aspects to achieve the goal of getting in touch with and moving our chi throughout our bodies. Our minds as well as our bodies must be relaxed in order to feel and sense our chi, so that we can send it where desired. If there is any tension along the pathways where our chi travels (meridians), blockage will occur and pain can result.
Repeated practice of the solo form will result in clear-minded attention.
As we gradually begin to be able to control our chi, we will also be developing our mind's most untapped assets, namely, our imagination; our sixth sense, intuition; and our willpower.
Our spiritual core manifests within our heart as sincerity, good will towards others, a deep respect for all living things and a burning desire to achieve something greater for ourselves and our fellow beings.
Many of us think that spirituality only exists when we go to a church, temple or synagogue. The reality is we are perpetually motivated by our spiritual nature. Above all else we are spiritual beings. Our spirit is transcendent (immortal) and difficult to comprehend because it is covered over and hidden by the material world to which we are so attached.
We must learn to differentiate between the material and the spiritual, which are simply manifestations of the Yin and the Yang. A way of doing this is to put our attention on the workings of the Yin/Yang theory in our everyday lives and use introspection, contemplation and meditation to help us understand our true nature. We must have love for ourselves, love for others, and love for all things within our physical universe and beyond.
Awareness is born from attention. Awareness of our physical selves should be studied and analyzed so that we can become very familiar with them. All parts of the body; the brain, skin, muscles, organs, glands, skeleton, nervous system, and the six senses (hearing, touching, seeing, smelling, tasting and insight or perception) must all be known to the student.
There are many things that we take for granted and, ultimately, these things escape our awareness. For instance, being aware of how it feels to pick your foot up from the floor, as well as how it feels to put it back down escape us. In Tai Ji Ch'uan we become aware of this and refer to this as distinguishing between the substantial and the insubstantial. When one foot is Yang (substantial), the other foot is Yin (insubstantial).
Then there is the process of change between the two. In other words, we must also become aware of the transition that takes place when we are in the process of stepping. It should be smooth and unbroken, as should all of the movements. Our awareness of change in every aspect of nature, (i.e. the seasons, the sun and moon, our lives, and life situations), should also be observed and studied.
We must not allow our awareness to linger at the physical level. We must also become aware of how our minds function in relation to our bodies. At first it is very hard to concentrate on a single thing, such as a step. However, in time we become more familiar with the movements. Through repetitive practice we notice that our minds become more focused and we can step and move our hands at the same time.
We take more notice of ourselves, assessing how we stand, so that we are not leaning in any direction, and making sure that our center of gravity is placed at the Tan Tien (lower abdomen). We become more conscious of the energy flow and exchange, leading chi to all parts of our bodies.
We notice that we become focused in the moment and are less distracted by extraneous thoughts, like what move comes next, or what will we have for lunch. We approach each movement calmly and without anticipation.
Becoming aware of our breathing is most important. All life is dependent on breathing because without oxygen, life would cease.
The slow rhythmic breathing from the lower abdomen that is prescribed for the Tai Ji Ch'uan practitioner will calm our minds, energize our bodies, detoxify and strengthen our internal organs and calm our spirit.
In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu asked the metaphoric question,
Can you make your breath like that of an infant?
The Taoists strive to achieve this type of fetal breathing, as do Tai Ji Ch'uan practitioners. It is the most refined breathing. It is soft, untroubled, without stress and inaudible.
When one can achieve this level of breath control, the whole body will be as supple and resilient as that of an infant.
In Tai Ji Ch'uan, when we practice the Joint Hands Operations, Da Lu (Great Pulling) or San Shou (Tai Ji Applications), we must become very aware of how our partner(s) feel. Are they light or heavy, fast or slow, sensitive or brutish? These energies and aspects that people express must be interpreted through our awareness. This is called Energy Awareness.
We may also find that the phenomenon of
calmly waiting for something
.. begins to enter into life outside of our Tai Ji Ch'uan classes. We start becoming more aware of our environment and our relationship with it.
After a while, we become aware of how our minds shift from one state of consciousness to another. As always, before we start our practice, we prepare ourselves to become calm and serene. Through the course of our practice, our awareness should shift from seeing our bodies and minds as individual components, to a body/mind fusion or synthesis. This is the joining of the Yin/Yang.
This is a special state of consciousness where neither the body nor the mind has any particular importance. As we go through the solo form this body/mind union will seem to allow our body to function on its own. It will move by itself, as if we are not in conscious control.
This is the state of moving meditation, or moving without moving, doing without doing. Our spiritual essence is in control. This happens on a moment by moment basis, each day, week, month and year of our lives.
The ego must give up conscious control over our selves and let our higher selves take command. The regulation of our subtler energies occurs as we progress through our studies. It is widely believed that the energy we emit describes our spiritual personality. This energy is also known as our aura. If someone is hot tempered, they are considered to have a red aura or if someone is calm, they have a light blue hue about them.
Esoteric schools of thought believe every human has several subtle energy bodies: the physical, etheric, astral, mental, causal, etc. Our higher selves are inseparable from and intertwined with our physical bodies. Being aware of and developing this knowledge through meditation and contemplation is where Tai Ji Ch'uan becomes most effective.
This is the true purpose of doing Tai Ji Ch'uan. The integration of all aspects of our being, the transcendence of the small self or ego, and the reemergence with the Tao, the natural Way is what we must seek.
The attitude you adopt toward what you are doing, and toward life in general, is more important than many of us realize.
If you have a defeatist or pessimistic outlook, or have a poor self-image, you will be overwhelmed by life's problems and cut down at every turn. If you have a positive, optimistic outlook - where your glass is half full instead of being half empty - you will succeed and triumph over worldly problems and your small egotistic selves. You will rise far above the normal state of being. People will gladly want to be with you. Success will be your ship when you travel through the sea of life.
This transcendence is actually a state of mind that arises from our attitude toward ourselves, toward others and toward what we do. We must whole-heartedly and sincerely want to transcend our normal state of being.
When we begin learning Tai Ji Ch'uan, our attitude is usually good and we practice diligently. We are very interested in what we are doing and are optimistic and glad to do something that is different and is good for us.
However, as time passes and we see that Tai Ji takes a lot of hard work. Our attitude may wane and we may miss a class or two. For the average person this could be the beginning of the end, but for those of us who have greater insight into the big picture of life, the hard work is a small price to pay for what we get from it.
Many wonderful things will accompany a positive attitude. Learning becomes a pleasure and a pastime, and a difficult maneuver becomes a challenge that we welcome. Our immune system is directly related to our attitude. A positive attitude can make our bodies stronger, more resilient and less prone to sickness. Our minds will become clearer and we will be able to understand situations more acutely and objectively. We will be able to solve life's difficulties more easily and we may find that there are fewer of them. Our family and social life will improve and become more harmonious. We will also become more receptive to new and different ideas.
A positive attitude can be nourished by behaving "as if" we already had what we wanted. It is an amazing method for transforming our selves and our situations. We should act "as If" we have already achieved our goals, "as If" we have already mastered our Tai Ji Ch'uan, "as If" we were the person we wished to be.
Of course, nothing will come to us if we only act as if we accomplished all our goals. We must accompany this attitude with hard work and diligent training.
Our attitude leads us to believe in what we are doing, even if we have doubts at first. Attitude and belief go hand in hand. In order to have a positive attitude about Tai Ji Ch'uan we have to believe in what it stands for and what it has to offer. Blind faith is not enough. We must have some concrete evidence of the effectiveness of our Tai Ji Ch'uan practice, and once we do, our faith is absolute.
When we truly believe that we can change any aspect in our lives through our attitude, then we will be able to accomplish any goal we set for ourselves. Belief in the positive effects of Tai Ji will foster perseverance, patience, fortitude and compassion. It enables us to willingly accept any hardship or challenge that comes along because we believe and we know we will succeed.
Western medicine doesn't understand the profound effects that a positive attitude and faith can have on people. Hopefully, our society will catch up with what has been going on in Asia for thousands of years. Humanity's potential would come to fruition, and a new perspective on medicine, healing and health care would blossom.
The power of self-healing and alternative medicine (acupuncture, acupressure, herbal remedies, meditation, Tai Ji Ch'uan, martial arts, etc.) is amazing. It is stated in the Nei Ching Su Wen, The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine,
Hence the sages did not treat those who were already ill; they instructed those who were not yet ill.... To administer medicines for diseases which have already developed is comparable to the behavior of those persons who begin to dig a well after they become thirsty, and of those who begin to cast weapons after they have already engaged in battle. Would not these actions be too late and fruitless?
Our society has made the body a most sacred thing. It has also elevated the pursuit of entertainment and pleasure into a necessity of life. It has become a major distraction. Our culture has raised the importance of material values far above what is necessary. For too long it has neglected the real value of human potential.
We must turn inward and have a look at ourselves, instead of always looking outward. Even the Bible says that, "The Kingdom of God Is Within." Don't get me wrong! We have to have the material things in our lives in order to survive, but at what price? How much is enough? Stress and tension rule most of our lives.
We can change all of that by slowing down and taking the time to do Tai Ji Ch'uan and its related aspects.
We will end this article with a chapter from the Tao Teh Ching by the famous Taoist sage, Lao Tzu. It expresses what is useful in emptiness, which is what Tai Ji advocates.
Thirty spokes converge upon a single hub; It is on the hole in the center that the use of the cart hinges. We make a vessel from a lump of clay; It is the empty space within the vessel that makes it useful. We make doors and windows for a room; It is these empty spaces that make the room livable. Thus, while the tangible has advantages, it is the intangible that makes it useful.
These three qualities: Attention, Awareness and Attitude - seeing what is useful in what is seemingly useless - are the signs of a Sage.