David, let me echo some of what Louis said about your post on the origin of Taijiquan. My comments were not directly aimed at what you posted, although what you posted was a trigger for some of what I said.
Let me try to explain my approach in a different way. Again, I am not addressing any particular previous poster or poster, nor am I trying to imply that anyone else agrees or disagrees with any particular point or with my position taken as a whole. I am just trying to explain my own experience and take on things.
At this moment, I accept a very wide definition of what is commonly called “Tai Chi” and have some interest in just about every variety I have heard described, have seen, or have practiced. At the same time, I have not yet heard a definition of “Tai Chi” that on detailed examination would be accepted by all or even most of my Taiji friends. For instance, many people talk about doing whatever is accepted by the “Classics.” As I understand it, not everyone defines the same group of works as “Classics.” Also, in practice, different practitioners put vastly different emphasis on different works and often put the greatest emphasis on recent works that most would not define as belonging to the “Classics.”
Even if we take such a recently and heavily documented figure as Yang Chengfu, I think we find that his teaching has spawned a vast variety of methods that often are mutually contradictory at many levels. For example, does seating your wrist mean “flexing” it, or keeping it straight? Should your Taijiquan rely on using the Macrocosmic orbit, or not?
Some people are lumpers. Others are splitters. In approaching the social context of Taijiquan, I am a lumper. I am glad this forum has contributors from many backgrounds and would think it much the poorer if only students of Yang Zhenduo participated. In practice, I am a splitter. I believe I lost several years of development, by not understanding that all approaches to Taijiquan were not necessarily interchangeable or additive. I honestly see many friends in similar situations, trying to reconcile things that I strongly believe are not intended to be reconciled.
Others believe that the issue is really finding out what is true Taijiquan and what is not. They would argue whether flexing or straightening the wrist would represent the “true Taijiquan” or Yang Chengfu’s true and most refined teaching. I find this personally to be unhelpful and prefer to discuss such things differently.
Given my position, I find that I can profitably approach certain topics in only very limited ways. I do not mean to imply that other approaches are invalid, only that I no longer know how to go down those paths. For example, I recall a poster who posted several questions about “Old Yang Style.” To me, this term implies an entire set of arguments and contexts that I could not address properly without writing a twenty-page post.
How does one define a “style”? What exactly is “Yang” Style? What is “old” and what is “new”? Is the term “Taijiquan” always used to describe the art as a whole, or a particular practitioner’s major barehand form? As a result of all these uncertainties, I do not like such questions and reply, if at all, in only limited fashion.
As for “manipulation of Qi,” here is my understanding, which I would like to explain through a baseball analogy. As far as I know, the vast majority of professionally baseball players accept the theories and principles of modern science. I would be surprised, however, if many have extensive knowledge of the neurology, anatomy, or physiology involved in swinging a baseball bat. To some, such knowledge is probably indeed helpful, but I believe that one can learn to swing a bat without knowing much of anything of these disciplines.
Because of questions about my earlier statements, I did a quick reality check by flipping through Yang Zhenduo’s book, Yang Style Taijiquan. Although I do not think the book was intended to lay down anything approaching his full art, I do think he intended to describe the fundamentals of his style. Unlike many other books I have seen, I see nothing in it about Qi Gong practices, meditation, stretching, aerobics, yoga, or many other good and worth arts. I have no idea what Yang Zhenduo’s attitude is about many of these; however, I think I must conclude that he did not believe that any of these things were fundamental to the theories he laid out for Yang Style.
In my cursory review of the book, I found two obvious references to Qi phenomena.
First, on pages 5-6, he describes Yang Style as follows: “The movements are naturally combined with breathing which should be deep and should ‘sink to the dan tian’ (a point in the lower belly slightly below the navel). Here again it is quite different from the Chen Style which combines ‘sink deep breath to the dan tian’ with ‘breath circulation in the lower belly’.” I believe the first reference is to what is described in Chinese as “Qi chen dan tian” (“The Qi sinks to the Dantain”).
I personally find the original translation quite illustrative of the fact that what is being described is not a complex manipulation that can be performed only after prolonged or specialized training or only with experienced focus. When I have heard this technique described in person, it was done in quite prosaic, down-to-earth terms that in my opinion bore little in common with the complex charts and diagrams I have seen in some books. Although I think I could demonstrate the meaning in person, it is hard to put it into words. For me, it boils down to something like being aware of where “I” am inside my body and locating this sense in my Dantian, or at least near to where my waist “energy” manifests itself. My purpose is not to deny or affirm the content of the charts or the diagrams of others, but to make clear that the Yangs did not present their material in this fashion and implied that focusing on such levels of complexity during practice was not appropriate to their style.
If anyone has attended a Yang family seminar or class and recalls being advised to focus on Qi circulation or being taught Qi Gong exercises, I would be curious to know of this.
I also do not mean to deny the marvelous effects of “sinking Qi to the Dantian” in both a health and a martial sense. I find this to be a quite subtle and important practice that I ignore all too often. I think it also has deeper aspects that might be misunderstood by viewing it simply as “deep breathing.” The fact that the term “Dantian” is used does not, in my opinion, imply that Yang Style Taijiquan has imported into its theories all of the vast, complicated, and apparently conflicting traditions about the Dantian that may have evolved in Chinese thought over the last 2500 years.
The other reference to Qi phenomena I found in the book was a quotation of Yang Chengfu’s Ten Essentials of Taijiquan. Here he explicitly refers to meridians in his explanation of “Using the mind instead of force.” I again find the context illustrative. Here is a partial quote:
“People may ask: How can one increase his strength without exercising force? According to traditional Chinese medicine, there is in the human body a system of pathways called jingluo (or meridian) which link the viscera with different parts of the body, making the human body an integrated whole. If the jingluo is not impeded, then the vital energy will circulate in the body unobstructed. But if the jingluo is filled with stiff strength, the vital energy will not be able to circulate and consequently the body cannot move with ease. One should therefore use the mind instead of force, so that vital energy will follow in the wake of the mind or consciousness and circulate all over the body. Through persistent practice one will be able to have genuine internal force. This is what Taijiquan experts call ‘lithe in appearance, but powerful in essence.’”
First, I find that the very reference to “traditional Chinese medicine” implies that Yang Chengfu was reaching for corroboration from outside of his core art, in the same way that a golfer might refer to physiology or physics to explain a particular method. To my mind, this does not mean that such references imply a privileged access to the underlying art. In other words, I do not need to be a physicist to play golf, and good physicists do not necessarily make good golfers. Studying physics is also not necessarily a magic key to open the door to a better golf game. I would equally assert that studying traditional Chinese medicine is not a required gate to understanding the Yangs’ Taijiquan.
Secondly, the entire emphasis of the quotation is on why “stiff strength” is bad, why “vital energy” (“jingshen”) and internal force (“nei jin”) are good, and why the “mind” (“Yi”) or consciousness are all that are necessary. Nowhere is there a direct emphasis on using the mind to manipulate, circulate, stimulate, generate, or even unlock Qi. I am not sure if the word Qi even appears anywhere in the quote. In my opinion, the emphasis is on two things: not using stiff force and on using the mind. The former blocks the “vital energy” (“jingshen”), and the latter allows the “vital energy” to “follow in its way” and to “circulate.”
If one reads the quote as implying that Yang Chengfu’s Taijiquan must naturally derive from the complex body of meridian theories, I do not understand why all Chinese martial arts do not follow Taijiquan’s theories or why all acupuncturists do not practice Taijiquan to the exclusion of any other arts. As far as I know, Taijiquan and Chinese medicine do not have a privileged relationship that cannot be claimed by many other arts. Qi phenomena are used to justify a whole range of things that in my view have little bearing on Taijiquan, from causing spontaneous combustion, levitating, or rendering one’s body bullet proof. Probably all “traditional” Chinese, Korean, and Japanese martial arts reference Qi and claim to have the secrets to mobilizing it to maximum effectiveness.
Again, I am not supporting or denying any particular meridian theories, only expressing my skepticism that understanding the various theories or engaging in practices derived from them are truly fundamental to anything the Yangs are describing. Why write a whole book and make only one or two casual references to isolated aspects of this? I honestly do not think the Yangs’ approach to Taijiquan is centered on Qi and think that pursuing the ins and outs of Qi will not help one learn much of their art. I would also say the same about breath control, blood circulation, neurology, and muscular control.
One particular concern I must confess to is the practice of the microcosmic orbit. I have only a minor personal experience with this practice; however, every time I have seen it described by renowned authors, I see it coupled with strong warnings against exploring it if done without expert supervision. I have also heard of third- or fourth-hand criticisms from traditional Chinese doctors who counsel against any such conscious manipulation of one’s Qi movement. I personally know of no one who has claimed to fall ill from doing the microcosmic orbit, but I have talked to people who have attributed illness to certain other Qi Gong practices. As I understand it, standard Taijiquan is supposed to be a relatively safe way of garnering the same benefits without the attended risks in unguided practice. I wonder, therefore, why someone would want to experiment with this outside of the supervision of someone with the required expertise to provide safe guidance.
If one has a good teacher, I can see little wrong in engaging in any practice, including the microcosmic orbit. I am incompetent to judge the worth of any particular teacher’s knowledge or theories if I have not even met them. I do, however, feel compelled to distinguish between various teachings. One of the very strong currents throughout the Yangs’ teachings is that their methods rely on natural movements of the body, rather than on trained manipulation of Qi, muscles, tendons, Jin (strength), Jing (essence), or anything else, with the possible exception of the mind or spirit. As far as I understand it, they say that any necessary changes to these things can be accomplished in their style safely and naturally through practice of the form itself. If one follows a method that prescribes some other practice or practices as “necessary” or “essential” to making progress in basic gongfu, I respectfully assert that such is a significantly different approach. Whether such approaches are good, bad, better, or worse requires an entirely different discussion on entirely different lines.
[This message has been edited by Audi (edited 11-23-2003).]