One Brush Stroke At A Time
By Ed Boates,
Originally published in:
"Tongren" Spring 1999 issue.
Newletter of the Canadian Taijiquan Federation
Vol 6, Issue 1 Page 8-9
It is just like learning calligraphy, do one brush stroke at a time and be patient...
- Yang Zhenduo
In early July 1990 at A Taste of China in Winchester, Virginia, Yang Zhenduo (third son of the famous Yang Chengfu) taught a five-day seminar on Traditional Yang Family Style Taijiquan. This was an event of historical significance because it marked the first time that a direct lineage member of the Yang family had taught in North America.
At the conclusion of the first day of the seminar I phoned my wife, and during our conversation she asked me for my initial impression of Yang Zhenduo. I replied,
He moves like a well-oiled bulldozer: extremely fluid and enormously powerful!
What are the basic "brush strokes" of Traditional Yang Family Style Taijiquan that Yang Zhenduo suggests be learned one at a time? They are the Ten Essentials of Yang Style Taijiquan that represent Yang Chengfu's distillation of the Taiji classics.
Yang Zhenduo begins all of his empty hands form seminars with a detailed discussion on the Ten Essentials and emphasizes that they each must be dynamically expressed in every frame and every transition of the form.
There are three distinct stages in the practice of Traditional Yang Family Style Taijiquan according to Yang Zhenduo:
"In the beginning normally the student just imitates and moves from frame to frame. In the second stage, after having learned the principals and essentials, the student tries to make the movements and principals become one. In the third stage, the principals and applications are combined into one and that becomes the essence. It means that the movements have intent and are no longer empty."
The student will reach a point during stage one practice where he or she knows the form too well. As a consequence of this mode of familiarity, the mind tends to wander during practice and the Taiji player experiences a deterioration in the quality and performance. Yang Zhenduo suggests that this situation is a primary indicator that it is time to begin the second stage of practice. At his stage he says:
"You must remember the ten essentials and apply these important principals. When you have something else on your mind, you can control your mind by directing it to implementing the important principals in each movement. This is one of the methods to regulate your mind"
The second stage of Yang Style Taijiquan practice is a painstaking and time-consuming process. Master Yang says it takes a long time to go through it, and because it does, some practitioners attempt to skip this stage and go directly to the martial aspects of stage three practice. However, because the Ten Essentials haven't been completely embodied, they will lack the structural and functional integrity of the body which is a compulsory prerequisite for successful martial prowess.
I have for a considerable time now been deeply engaged in the stage two practice of Traditional Yang Family Style Taijiquan. In the balance of this article, I will outline the methodology I have evolved to facilitate the embodiment of the Ten Essentials "one brush stroke at a time."
First of all, I divide my yearly Taiji training schedule into three cycles of four months each: Jan.-Apr., "Earth"; May-Aug., "Human"; and Sept.-Dec., "Heaven". This format provides me with at least one hundred and twenty training days per cycle. Twelve days of each cycle are devoted exclusively to each of the Ten Essentials. Therefore, each Essential becomes the focus of practice for a total of thirty-six days over three cycles.
In the preface to an article he wrote in Somatics Magazine, Dr. Paul Linden writes:
"Intention is the commitment to carry out some action. If the body is thought of as computer hardware, then intentions are the software or programming which organizes the body for doing and being."
Accordingly, I created personalized intentions out of each of the Ten Essentials. For example, Essential Six in the intentional form becomes
I am integrating my upper and lower body.
At the time of this writing, I am n day seven on the Earth cycle and my current twelve- day focus is on Essential One. Therefore, at least once during the performance of each and every frame and transition in the form, I silently say to myself, "I am holding my head as if suspended from above." On day thirteen, I will begin a similar twelve-day process with Essential Two and so on, until I reach the end of the Earth cycle. The same process will then be repeated during the Human and Heaven cycles.
In the Taiji literature, the Essentials are generally listed in a somewhat random order. I have followed the precedent of some Western teachers who have arranged them in a developmental sequence that goes from the top of the body to the bottom, and from the external to the internal.
The Ten Essentials' intentions are listed below, interspersed with brief explanations for the rationale underlying the developmental process.
The first three intentions outline the essential requirements for the upper body.
- I am holding my head as if suspended from above.
- I am sinking my shoulders, dropping my elbows, settling my wrists, and extending my fingers.
- I am sinking my chest and rounding my back.
When these three essentials are successfully embodied, the student will be able to sink the Qi (breath) to the Dan-Tian (centre). As a result the upper body will then be connected energetically and physiologically to the centre.
The next two intentions define the essential parameters for the lower body.
- (4.) I am loosening my waists and hips.
- (5.) I am distinguishing substantial (full) and insubstantial (empty).
The successful embodiment of these two Essentials connects the lower body energetically and physiologically to the Dan-Tian.
The combinatory effect of the first five Essentials makes the realization of the next two Essentials possible.
- (6.) I am integrating my upper and lower body.
- (7.) I am moving continuously without interruption
The first seven Essentials in harmonious combination enable the body to move with a high degree of structural unity and functional integrity.
The final three intentions delineate the martial, mental and meditative essentials of Taiji practice.
- (8.) I am combining internal (intention) and external (application).
- (9.) I am using my mind instead of force.
- (10.) I am cultivating tranquility in movement.
When all ten Essentials are in place, the form can be practiced with martial spirit and/or meditative stillness of mind.
In the Treatise on Taijiquan in the Taiji Classics, Wang Tsung-Yueh writes,
Silently memorize and thoroughly ponder. Little by little you will reach the stage where the body will automatically follow the mind.
These works were originally written in the context of sparring and interpreting energy, but I feel they are equally applicable and relevant to the dynamics of embodying the Ten Essentials.
For several training cycles now I have been silently memorizing and thoroughly pondering the Ten Essentials "one brush stroke at a time". I have experienced two profound benefits from this ongoing practice.
Little by little, I seem to be reaching the stage where my body is automatically following my mind. The conscious and continuos recitation of the intentions (software) seems to be gradually and efficiently programming the Ten Essentials into my body (hardware). As soon as I begin to silently recite a specific intention, I can feel the requisite Essential starting to effortlessly manifest in my body. Thus, I get occasional glimpses or "peek" experiences of what the Chinese refer to as "Wei wu-wei" - effortless effort.
Less and less frequently as time goes on, do I experience the "spacing out" phenomenon during practice that the Chinese refer to as "monkey mind". The constant repetition of the intention helps to anchor my attention and awareness, thereby providing an excellent antidote to "monkey mind". I still "space out" form time to time, but when I become mindful that I have lost focus, I gently remind myself, without recrimination, to return to the continuous process of reciting the intention in coordination with each movement.
Your Taiji form is your unique work of art. May I suggest that as you work on the artistic endeavor of creating your personal masterpiece, that you remember the sagely advice of Yang Zhenduo:
Do one brush stroke at a time and be patient...
Tai Chi Magazine. Vol. 14, no. 4 (August 1990) p.2
Tai Chi Magazine. Vol. 19, no. 5 (October 1995) p.11
Tai Chi Magazine. Vol. 22, no. 1 (February 1998) p.6
Somatics Magazine. Fall/Winter 1988-89, p. 54
Wile, Douglas. Tai Chi Touchstones: Yang Family Secret Transmission. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Sweet Chi Press, 1985 (p. 130)